FOUR years after its brutal victory over Tamil Tiger rebels that ended a 26-year-long civil war, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-led government is at pains to persuade the world that it has at last brought peace and unity to this troubled island. And the captain of the flag-carrying SriLankan Airlines flight 423 from Bangkok seems keen to do his national bit.
Easing his Airbus over the tea-studded plantations of the island’s central highlands for the approach into Colombo, the pilot primes those on board for landing.
“A warm welcome to Paradise for all our passengers….” he cheerfully intones in a voice as rich as the coconut curries ‘Mother Lanka’ is famous for. “That is, welcome to Paradise Regained.”
Which Sri Lanka certainly is if you’ve holidayed on its hedonistic beaches – arguably Asia’s most divine. It’s also been a political Shangri-La for the many members of the triumphalist Rajapaksa clan crowding government ranks, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and three of his brothers. They’ve ruled Sri Lanka since 2005 and, in South Asia’s dynastic style, are now positioning the family for yet another generation at the top. Ditto for the ruling brotherhood’s business cronies and military chums, as they pile into cosy government sinecures and the lucrative reconstruction deals that are spurring a modest economic surge now that the guns have been silenced in the Tamil north.
But, as The Global Mail examines in this series on post-war Sri Lanka, the notion of paradise is moot for many on the island, particularly those who aren’t tourists, or lavishing at the Rajapaksas’ teat. Nor is post-war Sri Lanka a reconciled arcadia for many in its Muslim and Tamil communities.
War’s end has unleashed a rampant Sinhalese nationalism that has many of the country’s Tamils – a community numbering around 15 per cent of the 21 million population – fearful that they are being subjected to a generational ethnic cleansing, a “structural genocide” as one Tamil community leader puts it, by a Sinhalese Buddhist regime they believe wants to breed centuries of Hindu-Tamil culture off the island.
Across the Tamil north-east, Colombo’s intimidating military has established scores of new military bases on seized lands. Australian government-sponsored billboards here warn desperate locals from fleeing on boats, but it’s a tough sell. There’s no certainty that Kevin Rudd’s “PNG solution” will much stem the exodus, amid suspicions that Colombo regulates the boat convoys like a spigot — opening the refugee valve whenever the Rajapaksas want to send a back-off message to their foreign critics.
There’s anxiety also among Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who make up 10 per cent of the population. Tamil-speakers who descend from Arabs who traded and settled here from the 7th Century, they’ve been a neutral voice of moderation in island affairs, caught between Sinhalese and Tamils in the decades of conflict. But many Sri Lankan Muslims now feel victimised, threatened by an outbreak of base chauvinism they believe has been unleashed by the Rajapaksas, who draw their support from the semi-literate rural poor of the Buddhist Sinhalese south. Buddhist-led hate groups are also proliferating online, while organised mobs have attacked Muslim targets, as in the August 10 assault on a Colombo mosque. More than 30 attacks by militant Buddhists on Muslim interests have been reported in the past two years.
As the Rajapaksas muzzle dissenting voices in civil society, and the media too, which has seen independent newspapers neutered, and journalists intimidated, forced into exile and even killed, Sinhalese moderates and intellectuals fret that the values and liberties of their unique multicultural ‘masala society’ are being eroded – that South Asia’s only uninterrupted post-colonial democracy is being turned into a dynastic ‘mafia state’.