St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo. (Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka is burdened by a history of silencing

Coverage of the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka has insufficiently considered the complex historical context within which the attacks took place, writes Nishhza Thiruselvam

Last summer when I was on holiday in India, I booked a last minute flight from Tamil Nadu to Colombo to visit my ancestral hometown for the first time. I went there as a Tamil woman traveling solo.

I had visited Sri Lanka previously as a child in 1999 on transit back to Malaysia from a family holiday in India. We had a 48 hour stop over in Colombo and whilst there we were scheduled for an eight-hour bus ride north of the island to my ancestral hometown, Jaffna, to pay a short but meaningful visit to where my grandmother and her siblings spent their childhoods. The island was in the midst of its civil war in 1999, and we were unsurprised albeit disappointed when on the morning of our trip, our bus ride north was cancelled due to it being too dangerous to travel.

The civil war ended in 2009 with the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and in the last 10 years, Sri Lanka has gained an image for being a peaceful island paradise. Traveler friends whom I had met while backpacking in India encouraged me to visit – they couldn’t speak highly enough of the island. They spoke of how life on the island moved at a slower pace, and how much more relaxed it was compared to India. Some said that visiting that Buddhist island nation brought them to feel at peace.

My parents however were worried when in January 2018 I sent a message on the whatsapp family chat letting them know I had just booked flights to Colombo with plans to travel to the north and north east of Sri Lanka. What worried them is that the island nation of Sri Lanka has the second largest number of unaccounted disappeared persons in the world – a lesser known reality overshadowed by its image as an island paradise.

Sri Lanka has not been a safe place for decades, and despite its widespread conceptions of a peaceful island paradise, the last 10 years have not guaranteed safety to minority communities. White van disappearances of Tamils and Sinhalese persons thought to have conspired in support with the LTTE are ongoing. With 12,000 persons still unaccounted for, families of the disappeared continue to seek justice, only to have their voices drowned out by mainstream narratives of the beauty and tranquility to be found in Sri Lankan forests and beaches. Shortly after I left Sri Lanka in 2018, riots broke out targeting the largely Tamil muslim community. Earlier this year, Sri Lanka’s Christian community were the most recent targets of communal violence.

With a history of colonisation by the Dutch and the British, Sri Lanka is a postcolonial state, and it is symptomatic of postcoloniality for a state to construct a strong national identity in response and resistance to colonising powers. Sri Lanka’s ethno-nationalism is consistent with this, and the Muslim and Christian communities have been ongoing targets of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, accused of converting Sri Lankan people to Christianity and Islam.

I did not feel safe when I traveled in Sri Lanka. The train ride to Jaffna from Colombo was beautiful, and my anticipation of stepping foot in my ancestral home town for the first time is a feeling for which I still have not found the words to articulate. Walking around Uduvil Girls College, the high school my grandmother attended was surreal. Restaurants in Jaffna did not offer cutlery, and I loved so much eating every meal with my hands, surrounded by people who looked and felt like family. From Jaffna, I caught a bus to Mullaitivu, a heavily militarised area. I spent a night there – shorter than I had planned, staying on the site of the final battle. As the bus pulled into Mullaitivu, we drove past hundreds of Tamils camped on the side of the road on hunger strike, the majority of whom were women protesting the Sri Lankan government’s systematic appropriation of Tamil land. These women were also calling for answers about their disappeared loved ones.

My auto-rickshaw driver in Mullaitivu was a former LTTE fighter, Prabakaran. Upon finding out I was of Jaffna ancestry, Prabakaran invited me back to his home to meet his wife, another former fighter and their daughter, Madhu – named after a fallen LTTE fighter. Meeting the family was a moving experience. Prabakaran had lost both his legs in the final battle, his wife was missing two fingers, and his mother was widowed by the war. Prabakaran was not able to talk about his experience in the island’s “rehabilitation camps” where he was sent after being captured by the Sri Lankan army in 2009. Prabakaran expressed to me his desire to leave Sri Lanka – he said it was not a place where he could raise his daughter in safety and dignity. While relatively unknown, allegations of sexual violence at the hands of the Sri Lankan military is widely recorded, and the recorded incidents are traumatising to engage with. These atrocities are alleged to have continued years after the war. I felt the eyes of military personnel on me everywhere I went in Mullaitivu. Everywhere I went they inquired if I was Tamil or Sinhalese, asking where I was from and why I was there. My surname is unmistakably Tamil. I felt intimidated.

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I felt further intimidated when I stopped over for the night in Sigiriya, on my way back to Colombo from the North East. Sigiriya is a Sinhalese region of the island which attracts hordes of tourists and Buddhist pilgrims to its ancient Buddhist sites. I had booked a night’s stay there under my name at accomodation which turned out to be linked to a Buddhist temple. When I arrived, I was met with hostility and was questioned by a monk about my heritage and where I was from. I was traveling on my Malaysian passport, and insisted that having spent 14 years growing up in Malaysia and the next 14 in New Zealand, I identify with Malaysia and New Zealand as my home.

My position as a backpacker in Sri Lanka was complex, and the gaze I was subject to as Tamil woman within the context of Sri Lanka’s political history left me at times feeling isolated amongst other travelers. A dominant narrative about the LTTE is that the group received its funding from the Tamil diaspora. I was aware of the implications of this on my presence there, especially knowing that Tamil tourists visiting from overseas had also fallen victim to white van abductions. The extent to my feeling of insecurity is not something I expected, and I left the island with my tail between my legs.

In news reports following the atrocities of Easter Sunday, there has been little mention of the fact the churches targeted in Colombo are ones frequented by a majority of Tamil worshipers. Media narratives do not seem to adequately cover the complex historical context within which these attacks ought to be considered. Considering the timing and coordinated nature of these attacks, it seems odd for this to be such a quick and well coordinated response to our own Christchurch mosque shootings. Furthermore, with the Sri Lankan general elections on the horizon for 2020, the ruling elites of Sri Lanka will as always look to benefit the most from insecurity and inter-ethnic conflict.

Sri Lanka is a diverse island nation, and it is valuable to consider a range of voices alongside the narratives of the elite and of the majority community. At this time, I worry for the historically marginalised communities who are vulnerable to further persecution. It is crucial  that we seek out voices of the minority to form an understanding of these attacks and in solidarity with those affected. When Sri Lanka is burdened by a history of silencing and marginalising minority voices, understanding their diverse contexts is an important means of ensuring everyone’s safety.


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