@2017  Alice LoCicero

Sri Lanka Attacks:  Ending a Fragile Peace

on a Beautiful Island

 blog  posted by Alice LoCicero,  April 22, 2019

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi from Pexels

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     Sri Lanka is a small island off the coast of India. Because of its shape and location, it is often called the “teardrop” of India. I traveled there in 2007,  to study why Tamil youth might volunteer to be part of the infamous Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) martyr group, “Black Tigers,” intentionally dying in attacks that killed others. (1)  The Tamil Tigers were credited/blamed for developing the so-called suicide vest. The  culture and history of this small island nation (about the size of Rhode Island) are a mystery to most westerners, and its 21st century political conflicts are complex, involving parties, splinter groups that may have misleading names, and  seemingly unlikely alliances. To the surprise of some, representatives of religion do not hold back from endorsing—openly or tacitly— violence and revenge in Sri Lanka.  Today, the  Roman Catholic cardinal was quoted as saying that he would like to find the perpetrators of the attack, and “punish them mercilessly.” (2) Recent reports note that some Buddhist monks support Singhalese supremacy to a degree that might suggest they are inciting, or cheering on, violence. (3)  Religious sites had not been off-limits to bombing from either side during  the civil war, and were the target of several attacks today.  While religion and conflict may mix in Sri Lanka, however, the issues that generate most passion and overt conflict are equity, land, and power. The attacks in today’s news are not likely to be understood simply or quickly, without in-depth and accurate understanding of the history of the island’s people, beginning with indigenous groups, over hundreds of years, including occupation by Dutch, Portuguese, and then British forces. We might also need to know about contemporary influences from other nations, including European and Asian nations, and the US, as well as groups situated in Sri Lanka. (4) We will all be well-served to be calm and patient in attempting to understand and evaluate explanations already being offered, seemingly rather glibly, and sometimes by people who seem to relish opportunities to provoke anger towards particular groups. 

 

     Today’s attacks happened mostly in the very modern city of Colombo. But much of the island is rural. We learned in our research that many youth, who had never known an island without war, wanted to live in peace within their communities, and looked ahead hopefully to a time when their communities would be at peace with members of groups that their community  was currently fighting. That is, they did not blame the entire ethnic group for the actions of bombers or attackers. I want to share here my observations in the smaller, more rural, communities I visited. Even in wartime, life in the communities went on. Here are some notes I wrote after the 2007 trip. Things had changed little in 2010, when I returned, and I suspect many of these scenes would be relevant today as well. In 2007, I took few photos, because almost everywhere I went there were government soldiers, often with their rifles ready to fire. Sometimes they were calm; other times distressed. To give you an idea of how tense the situation was, and how ubiquitous soldiers were, in 2007, I rode with some children on a school bus a distance of about one kilometer, and there were six roadblocks along the way. At each one, government soldiers had to approve, in order for the bus to continue along its route. Yet, even with soldiers and roadblocks and against a daily background of gunfire, life went on. The following section, describing a few scenes from everyday life, is from my book: 

 

If I had taken photos, the photos would have looked like this: Old men with white hair and brown skin wearing white shirts and dhotis-cloth wrapped around their waists and legs-riding bicycles with one gear along the partially paved roads, balancing huge boxes full of bread they were delivering, as they navigated barriers and obstacles and checkpoints. Cows wandering along on the streets, oblivious to their interference with three-wheelers carrying women in shimmering saris. The three-wheelers—open carriages balanced on motorcycle-engine-powered chassis—usually functioned as taxis and were driven exclusively by men, weaving seemingly perilously among much larger buses, vans, and trucks, so close that for the first few days I spent too much time gasping, waiting ing for the crash I was sure was imminent. (I never saw any crash or even scrape.) 

 

Motorcycles carried all sorts of people, sometimes one carried three or four people, sometimes a family with children. There were pedestrians dressed in bright colors, many carrying umbrellas against the glaring sun. Dogs were resting. An occasional beggar was sitting alone. Young women in tunics and pants, and older women in dresses, many carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun, walked slowly. Children ran and laughed, and played. Many people of all sizes stood waiting as all the passengers of a bus on which they had been riding had their IDs checked by soldiers at one or another checkpoint. Sagging buildings, some that had been rendered totally useless by the 2004 tsunami, and others, appearing barely more functional, advertising food, pharmaceuticals, and computer training. 

 

Sturdier buildings with discreet signs designating them as government agencies or banks. Ditches were full of trash and rain water. Stores had wide open fronts, and, at small stands along the road here and there, vendors sold newspapers, coconuts, yogurt, fruit, rice, scarves, and toys. And everywhere, people were making do, one way or another. It looked like many other villages, in many other parts of the world, except for the rifle-carrying soldiers everywhere you turned. Some were in makeshift bunkers, consisting of bags of sand stacked up. Some soldiers, partially hidden behind bushes, above the road, held the rifle sights up to their eyes, ready to shoot. One pretended to be Rambo when he did not think anyone was watching. They were ubiquitous, but they were, collectively, just one reminder of the ever-present, tiring, enervating, reality of war. 

 

There were seemingly endless beautiful beaches with transparent aqua water, all starkly empty. A very few hotels here and there were currently at about 5 percent occupancy, most of the occupants being tired, sunburned European aid workers. Occasionally, you could see a modern SUV with lettering indicating it carried UN employees.They drove quietly, and with their windows closed, because they, unlike everyone else, had air conditioning. Then again they, unlike anyone else, spent most of their hot sunny days dismantling and removing land mines. Workers from the United Nations and such organizations were not stopped at checkpoints, but every other vehicle or pedestrian might be stopped and searched by any of the soldiers. 

 

Sometimes the stops were cursory, but other times, they were lengthy, and the soldiers opened bags and asked many questions. Many times the soldiers appeared relaxed, but occasionally, probably when they had some reason to believe there was danger, they appeared anxious and on high alert. For most of my trip, I experienced little fear, probably because I was fooling myself. 

 

     During this war, as during virtually all contemporary wars, civilians were at risk from both sides to the conflict—in this case the  LTTE and the government forces. In 2009, the US government, which had supported the government’s efforts to defeat the LTTE, ceased to send military aid to Sri Lanka, because of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government. That same year, the Sri Lankan government decided to put an end to the LTTE. They succeeded in putting an end to most open hostilities, but many civilians  were killed and harmed in the process. This caused a great deal of criticism from western nations. Despite the likelihood that survivors of the war would have been likely to suffer psychological trauma, following the end of open hostilities, the government banned many aid organizations, and proclaimed that there was no further need for psycho-social assistance. 

 

The last ten years seem to have been mostly free of major hostilities, and tourism was beginning to make a comeback in Sri Lanka. Sadly, today marks an end to what seemed to be a fragile peace. Today’s coordinated terrorist attacks, apparently perpetrated by bombers who intentionally died in the process of killing others, were shocking to Americans. The attacks, leading to large numbers of casualties, in a distant, and little-understood island with a history of protracted conflict, on a religious holiday, in an era when the idea of “terrorism” continues to strike fear into Americans’ hearts, was bound to stir up questions. There was, on social media, speculation about who the perpetrators were, why they acted as they did, and whether it is the beginning of another protracted conflict.  It is hard to wait for answers to evolve, especially in this age where instant answers to many questions are only a web browser away. 

 

As a result of my research and scholarship, I know a little more about the island than most Americans, and a little more about terrorism than most Americans, and a little more about complexities of peace and war than most Americans. I want to convey my hope that we can all be patient, even when we want answers, and to take time to try to understand the historical roots and contemporary complexities of modern conflict, including in Sri Lanka. It will be tempting to latch onto the first attributions of blame, but the story is likely to be more complex than it appears. Taking time to understand before responding, digging deeper to understand what we see on mainstream media or social media, and being willing to understand the complexities of these attacks will help us all understand all 21st century conflict better. With better understanding, perhaps we can begin to imagine how to create a world without any war, and to take the needed steps to begin to bring it about. 

Notes:

1.  My colleague Dr. Samuel Justin Sinclair and I wrote extensively about the findings from the 2007 research in the book called Creating Young Martyrs: Conditions that make Dying in a Terrorist Attack Seem Like a Good Idea. I would also refer anyone interested in knowing more about this subject to the film by Norwegian filmmaker Beate Arnestad, called My Daughter the Terrorist.  (See the filmmaker’s account at http://amanpour.blogs.cnn.com/2009/12/14/my-daughter-the-terrorist/)

2. https://www.newsweek.com/pope-francis-condemns-sri-lanka-attacks-cruel-violence-speech-annual-easter-1402202?utm_campaign=NewsweekTwitter&utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social

3. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/03/opinion/sri-lankas-violent-buddhists.html

4. About 24 hours after the attacks, the Sri Lankan government seems to be tentatively blaming a “little-known radical Islamist group” according to the NYTimes. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/world/asia/sri-lanka-bombing-explosion.html My advice is to continue to follow this story as it unfolds, for a fuller understanding, and perhaps a different understanding. It is likely to be complicated. 

 

 

 

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