The image of Sri Lanka as a latter-day paradise was tragically marred by a bitter civil war in which both sides committed atrocities. Denial is in the air – which will do nothing to reconcile an ancient people already divided by religion, ethnicity and language.
“Unspeakably hot. The equator is arriving again. We are within eight degrees of it. Ceylon present. Dear me, it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical, as to character of foliage and opulence of it. ‘What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle’ – an eloquent line, an incomparable line; it says little, but conveys whole libraries of sentiment, and Oriental charm and mystery, and tropic deliciousness – a line that quivers and tingles with a thousand unexpressed and inexpressible things, things that haunt one and find no articulate voice.”
From independence in 1948 to 1972 Ceylon was a Dominion in the Commonwealth of Nations. In 1972 it became a republic within the Commonwealth and its name was changed to Sri Lanka – from the Sanskrit lanka (the name of the island described in the ancient Indian epics Mahabharata and the Ramayana) and sri meaning sacred.
Sri Lanka has a multi-party democracy with many smaller Buddhist, socialist and Tamil nationalist political parties. Politics in Sri Lanka is a contest between rival coalitions led by the centre-leftist and progressive United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the comparatively right-wing and pro-capitalist United National Party (UNP). The country’s President is Mahinda Rajapaksa, a lawyer and former Prime Minister, who is allegedly responsible for war crimes against Tamil civilians and captured Tamil Tigers.
Officially, the constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees human rights but its record has been criticised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the United States Department of State. A report by an advisory panel to the UN secretary-general has accused both the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government of Sri Lanka of war crimes during final stages of the civil war.
Most of the fighting took place in the north. But the conflict also penetrated the heart of Sri Lankan society, with Tamil Tiger rebels carrying out devastating suicide bombings in the capital Colombo in the 1990s. Overall the violence killed more than 75,000 people, damaged the economy and harmed tourism in one of South Asia’s potentially most prosperous societies.
International concern was raised about the fate of civilians caught up in the conflict zone during the final stages of the war, the confinement of some 250,000 Tamil refugees to camps for months afterwards, and allegations that the government had ordered the execution of captured or surrendering rebels.
The UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay, visited Sri Lanka in May, 2013. After her visit she said, “The war may have ended here, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.” She also sounded the alarm about the military’s increasing involvement in civilian life and reports of military land grabbing.
In the novel Anil’s Ghost (2000) by Michael Ondaatje, forensic pathologist Anil Tissera returns to Sri Lanka in the middle of its merciless civil war as part of a Human Rights Investigation by the United Nations. In an ancient burial ground, which is also a government-protected zone, Anil, along with archaeologist Sarath Diyasena, discovers the skeleton of a recently murdered man. Believing the murder to be politically motivated, Anil and Sarath set out to identify the skeleton, nicknamed Sailor, and to seek justice for the nameless victims of the war.
The novel explores the acute devastation caused by civil war and the need to bring into the open what happened and who was responsible before trying to move on. At the beginning of the book, a woman is sitting on a grave, looking down at the remains of two bodies that may be her husband and brother abducted a year earlier. She pictures them resting one beside the other having eaten the lunch she prepared for them: “There are no words Anil knows that can describe, even for just herself, the woman’s face. But the grief of love in that shoulder she will not forget, still remembers.”
Sri Lanka has yet to remember, and silencing those who wish to or just keeping silent can only lead to further grief.