Kaplan on Sri Lanka

Thanks to all readers who sent in the best Kaplan piece to be published in years. It starts off with a good dose of romantic travel writing:

My journey began at Colombo’s crumbling train station, with its white facade like a cake about to melt. The first-class ticket cost a little more than $3 for the three-hour journey from Sri Lanka’s steamy Indian Ocean capital, through deep forest, to an altitude of 1,650 feet. The rusted railway car rattled and groaned its way uphill. Soon banana leaves were slapping against the train as we entered a relentless tangle of greenery.

The forest thickened with the crazy chaos of dark hardwood foliage. Vines choked every tree. The torrential rain of the southwest monsoon invigorated the pageant, shrieking and beating against the leaves as sheets of mist moved across the jungle. Then came swollen brown rivers, with water buffalo half sunk in mud near the pottery-red banks. Here and there the forest would break to reveal a shiny, rectilinear carpet of paddy fields, only to close in again, denser than before. I saw scrap-iron hutments and tiled rooftops the color of autumn leaves, and smoky blue hillsides creased by waterfalls and half-eaten by gray monsoon clouds. Other breaks in the forest revealed the occasional bell-shaped Buddhist dagoba, or stupa, with its soaring-to-heaven whiteness against the otherwise fungal-green tableau. As we drew near to Kandy, we passed through several narrow tunnels. In the pitch black, the creak of the train reverberated against the rock walls.

Kandy in early evening was a study in rust and mildew, with a crawling-uphill line of food stalls and other storefronts, so tattered and musty they seemed about to disintegrate. Yet that was only a first impression. Later ones would reveal how I had misjudged the scene. The storefronts—eateries, jewelers, mini-supermarkets, five-and-dime shops—were merely in need of new windows and paint jobs; they were in fact doing a brisk business. The streets were clean, the overhead fans worked in every shop I entered, and few beggars were visible. The middle class was evidently thriving, as demonstrated by the number of lavish, assembly-line weddings at my hotel during these auspicious days at the beginning of the monsoon.

It then pours into a history lesson.

From the late 16th to the early 19th centuries, the kingdom of Kandy sturdily held out against European invaders: the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British in their turn. “Like many other armies in peasant and tribal societies,” writes Channa Wickremesekera in Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka 1594 to 1818 (2004), “the Kandyan army fought in loosely organized and highly mobile units depending on a flimsy logistical base,” making optimum use of its rugged, jungly terrain. It was very much like a 21st-century guerrilla insurgency, in other words—inspired, in this case, by the need to defend faith and homeland against heathen Europeans. The dense forest through which I had passed on my train ride constituted the graveyard of European attempts to reach Kandy, with many a Portuguese, Hollander, and Briton dying or giving up, exhausted and demoralized, afflicted by disease amid the cruel jungle.

Eventually, the improved muskets and light artillery developed in Europe proved too much for the Kandyans. The British, explains Wickremesekera, unlike the Portuguese and Dutch, had the added advantages of “mastery over the neighboring Indian subcontinent and an army of over 100,000 soldiers when they clashed with Kandy.” They toppled King Wickrama of Kandy in 1815. He may have dug the lake, but he had been a tyrant and torturer. At least that was how the British rationalized their actions.

And finally, a hard analysis of the current situation in Sri Lanka, by being on the ground and seeing developments first hand.

The Sinhalese are a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution… The Sinhalese have had to deal with a guerrilla insurgency every bit as vicious and suicidal as the better-known ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Tamils, for their part, have had to deal with coercion, discrimination, and the utter failure of Sinhalese government institutions to protect their communal rights. There is nothing crueler than a majority that feels itself a minority.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected in 2005 to win the war outright, and he succeeded in the most brutal fashion: by abducting or killing journalists and lawyers to silence the media, even as he conducted a counterinsurgency campaign that had no moral qualms about the deaths of the thousands of Tamil civilians that the Tamil Tigers were using as human shields. Of the 70,000 people killed in the war since 1983, 10 percent, mainly civilians, were killed in the last few months of fighting in 2009.

I was in Sri Lanka on May 18, 2009, the day the war was declared over, and the body of Prabhakaran, killed in last-ditch fighting, was displayed on television, as government forces mopped up the final few hundred yards of Tamil Tiger territory. The next morning, May 19, I drove through the southern coastal heartland of the Buddhist Sinhalese. Everywhere there were parades and flag-bedecked, horn-honking rickshaw convoys, with young men, many of them unemployed, shouting and setting off masses of firecrackers. An effigy of Prabhakaran’s body was dragged and burned. I sensed a scary and wanton boredom in these young men, as if the same crowds, under different circumstances, could be setting fire to Tamil homes, as had been done in earlier decades. I noticed that the closer I got to the ethnically mixed population center of Colombo, the fewer such demonstrations I saw.

President Rajapaksa came to Kandy a few days later, on May 23, to receive the blessings of the chief Buddhist monks at the Temple of the Tooth for winning the war. He expressed no apologies or remorse for the victims of the war… The monks had acquiesced in this descent into communal intolerance. They have long enjoyed the uses of political power and hark back to a past when they were the rousing nationalist force behind Ceylonese kings… At last, these monks could look forward to a Buddhist-run state that would have full sovereignty over the island.

Great reading, but the above is less than half of the complete article — make sure to read the rest on your own.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Kaplan on Sri Lanka

  1. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 8/21/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  2. DJ says:

    I just finished reading it. That was an awesome read. I liked it all but this part stands out.

    “Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind……..
    …..Yet Buddhism, as Kandy demonstrates, is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military. ”

    I have sat through East Asia studies courses where the Professor lectures us on peaceful Buddhism vs. the other major religions and remember being irritated.