Sri Lanka: Without tourism religious tensions can only worsen

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Until this week Sri Lanka had enjoyed a brief era of stability, having suffered a consecutive set of catastrophes over the last few decades, both with the impact of the 2004 tsunami and a long and bloody Civil War.

I fell in love with Sri Lanka a few years ago. The ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ is unrivalled in its natural beauty, but under the veneer of smiles and embarrassingly good English language skills, tensions bubble along religious, ethnic and political lines.

Since the war, the tourism trade has brought money and opportunity into what is still a very poor country.  Much like our part of the world, tourism is an essential part of the economy, but unlike South West England, Sri Lankan’s are overshadowed by the threat of civil unrest as a result of its decline, whilst the biggest threat to Devon’s footfall in recent years has been a strong Euro exchange rate against the Pound.

Some years ago after eating at their
restaurant, I spent some time with two
Sri Lankan Muslims, Salim and Mahmoud. The pair were reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, one always screaming the others name for help with cooking. Whilst they were regularly seen at Friday prayers, they could also be seen drinking and smoking with the tourists at night, much to the disappointment of Salim’s wife. We went fishing together, throwing nets over sprats in a knee-deep lake while I watched the nearby crocodiles nervously.

Salim wanted no part in the fighting, unlike his brother who was militant in his pursuits. Once the war broke out, a rift between the brothers soon appeared. Then one day, the same brother, angry at Salim’s unwillingness to fight, appeared out-of-the-blue to try and kill him. Salim fled and his brother died in the fighting.

The pair shared the same faith, but it wasn’t enough to stop his brother from trying to murder him. Veterans of the war are often begging on the streets. They would tell stories of how they came to lose their limbs. Their stories were impossible to verify, but you can’t help but feel empathy for absolute poverty wherever you see it.

Locals would speak of the psychological damage done to soldiers who fought in the battles. The former soldiers that were mentally damaged by war, either through trauma inflicted on them or because of the orders they were forced to carry out on their fellow countrymen.  I saw evidence of this first hand in a tourist town called Unawatuna. As my girlfriend and I arrived at our hotel, a fight between two or three locals had broken out outside, with the hotel staff intervening.

A male on a moped took a beating from two others and was sent on his way. “He crazy, damaged from the war,” the hotel staff said. We went back to our drinks and then to bed, thinking no more of it. We were awoken in the middle of the night by a deafening explosion. Everyone in the hotel scrambled out of their rooms and scurried down to the lobby.

Outside, the pavement in front of the hotel had been destroyed. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, just dynamite, go back to bed,” the hotel staff assured us. Our chap who’d taken a beating had returned to enact his revenge, presumably throwing the lit stick of dynamite from his moped and riding off into the night, with the customary howl from the street dogs that follows any sudden noise in the country. As I found out, things can escalate quickly in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan’s have an admirable style of playing down drama to protect the tourism trade. I saw it on many occasions. But this ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude is unlikely to protect their livelihoods now.

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