Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Fear: A Personal Experience in Sri Lanka

By Benita Sumita

“Beware of suspicious looking objects” – this is a commonly heard public announcement these days in airports, markets and metro stations from New Delhi to London to downtown Chicago. One cannot escape the voice of the sweet lady reminding us of the volatile and precarious times we live in. There is a sense of constant caution. However in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the reminder is more personal with a visit from your friendly neighborhood cop (mostly to offices and commercial establishments). I have quietly sat through one of these sessions. In a 45-minute talk in Sinhala by your friendly neighbourhood cop you are also reminded of the terror and backlash that led to the bloodletting of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots. Therefore as responsible citizens of Sri Lanka, listeners are advised to become the eyes and ears of the system. The message is that it is not enough to be cautious and alert for possible packages that could be bombs but “it is also important to alert authorities of anyone who seems suspicious”. This is what personifies Sri Lanka to me – the state of permanent fear.

This is the first incident that came to mind when I was asked to write about my brief stint in Sri Lanka though I have travelled to the tiny island of Sri Lanka several times and on different occasions experienced Sri Lanka differently. The very first time I traveled to Sri Lanka was as a tourist. I gasped at its beauty and made mental notes of the unfailing similarity the land bore to hometown. For my maiden voyage, Sri Lanka was everything I’d hoped it would be – breathtaking, homey and incident-free. However, this picture-perfect touristy image seemed to peel off during subsequent visits.

On the second and third trip I stepped out of my vacationing bubble and began to notice the country and its people. Staying within the seemingly secure confines of Colombo, I realized that the capital was an isle unto itself. The day-to-day routine, the evening dos, and the nonchalant existence give a sense of living on Paradise Island. My first question was to ponder how a people that have been dealing with violence and conflict for over two decades could continue to live as if the bombs and bullets are all part of everyday life. The younger generation in Sri Lanka has not known peace. Some of them began life at the core of the conflict and others are far removed; especially those who primarily reside in Colombo or have had the good fortune to be able to reside abroad.

However this casual demeanor is also a façade of sorts. The people’s persistence to carry on forward is not because they don’t care, but because on the face of it, they don’t want to seem to be giving in to fear. Sri Lankans are no strangers to fear and they have learnt the art of tackling fear. What I learnt very soon was that this fear was not because of the bombs and LTTE suicide bombers that have bloodied their post-independent history. Strangely the people are afraid of the very system that is meant to protect them – the State. The government machinery has an iron grip on the people’s freedom of expression. Since everybody in Sri Lanka is in a permanent state of fear the state has managed to refrain people from expressing themselves as they are afraid of being bracketed as pro-LTTE, or nationalist or anti-nationalist. Any one of these tags could invite trouble from the government or the rebel LTTE or the ever so many other paramilitary groups. By creating frenzy and fear the government has more control over the people and in consequence also creates a semblance of protection. This iron grip has tightened in the last two years as the government steamrolls its way with a military strategy aiming to end the armed conflict through an indisputable and crushing battlefield victory.

It may seem like I am insinuating the people of Sri Lanka are brain-washed. They are not. While speaking to people, I have realized that they see through this vicious web that the government spins but at the same time seem helpless to do anything about it. Of course, sections of the media or the NGO community – national and international – do try to take on the government; most often in vain and other times these face-offs end in attacks on the media, kidnappings and/or murder of journalists and/or eviction of “undesired” persons (foreigners) – who are considered a threat to national security. As a foreigner who studies Sri Lanka, I am perplexed by the politics of the violent conflict and the seeming docility with which its people endure it. In some instances, for e.g. Burma or Nepal, under various determining factors people have been able to rise and mobilize against repression.

Sri Lanka is yet to see such a people’s movement.

Perhaps they have to first break free from fear.