Padma Rao’s Sri Lanka
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday February 29 2016.
One particular passage in Padma Rao’s excellent book, Sri Lanka-The New Country, brought tears to these rheumy old eyes. It concerns her Sinhalese driver Udayanga and a Tamil waiter whom she calls Murugan. She first recounts Udayanga’s story. “Throughout the trip, he had displayed none of the rough chauvinism that many commentators outside Sri Lanka insist that the Sinhalese wear on their sleeve vis-à-vis their fellow Tamil citizens”. He was a Buddhist from Balangoda. From an early age he had wanted to join the army and he tried to enlist after the LTTE assassinated President Premadasa. Despite his parents’ best efforts to obstruct him, he was eventually accepted and after some hard training joined the Special Force. During the war he met many LTTE child soldiers. He said that Prabhakaran had no humanity. “Instead of giving them a pencil he would give them a gun”.
Murugan was a tall, lanky young man working at a hotel in Mannar. He shyly asked this Indian author “Is Prabhakaran in India?” Murugan had been an LTTE cadre, forced by guns held to his parents’ heads to enlist and he was afraid that the LTTE leader would return. She told him to get on with his life now that there was peace.
She saw Udayanga and Murugan playing carom in the courtyard with “a lot of boyish guffawing”. When the time came to leave the hotel, Udayanga walked towards Murugan and they engaged in stiff handshake, then some backslaps, finally a quick rough hug. “This is the future, these children of Sri Lanka. These boys, this embrace. This is Sri Lanka, the new country.”
At the beginning of the book she gives a brief run-through on Sri Lankan history and mentions the island’s geo-strategic relevance at the crossroad of shipping lanes and writes that it “expectedly remains a focal point not only for the United Nations, international NGOs and aid agencies but also the international media. She notes that members of the Tamil diaspora are still trying to fund Tamil separatism “despite the fact that millions of fatigued Sri Lankan Tamils who did not flee, like the diaspora itself, but stayed back and bore the brunt of the terrible war, want no more talk of separatism”. She notes that foreign media may not always help these fatigued people to achieve their modest desires. “What news reporters see and experience on the ground often differs from what editors at the headquarters of their publications expect or want them to produce”.
She contrasts the bleakness of the north when she visited during the cease fire of 2002 with the north as it is today. “From Vavuniya onwards we had not seen a single bus, truck or even a cycle anywhere. We saw no children playing, no women hanging out washing, no men smoking under a tree. Up to here we had seen and heard nothing, except cicadas and the sound of our own car”. At Killinochchi “there was no electricity. There were a few people selling a few utility items like candles, matchboxes and solitary, stray vegetables on small plastic sheets on what must have once been a pavement”.
On a previous visit she had encountered a group of two dozen people squatting in a circle, tears streaming down their faces. Each person was holding a picture of a boy or a girl. They had heard that foreigners were in the Wanni and wanted to tell about their missing children. When warned that the LTTE might punish them for what they were doing, one man replied “what have we got to live for anyway?” That man later contacted the author to say the LTTE had told him that his son had been killed in fighting near Elephant Pass. He was the proud owner of a certificate of martyrdom signed by Prabhakaran.
When she visits Jaffna just before the Northern Provincial Council elections, the author wants to go to villages to talk to “ordinary” people. She is able to do this as the aide accompanying her makes himself scarce. Everyone she talks to praises the Army. One man said: “The LTTE was only involved in violence, absolutely nothing else. Our life in the Wanni was miserable. They kept taking our children away. There was no food, no power, absolutely nothing in our lives except blood. Blood, blood…”
Ms Rao notices vast improvement in the Eastern province as well as in the north. “Critics often say that building roads and setting up shops is not development. Try looking at it from the point of view of those who have lived in a place like Batticaloa for thirty years”. She saw many groves of coconut trees. Gone were the charred and barren fields of decades and most of the tents housing fleeing populations. The last of the landmines were being cleared. Mangroves are being restored to help local fishermen.
Former Tiger propaganda chief Daya Master told the author, “How many countries in the world would have emerged from such a long war and rebuilt within four years even half of what has been achieved here?” The author reminded him of the strictures from the international community. “Who is this international community, madam? … What is their purpose and role in a small country so far away? They are going over the top and making far too much noise. Why don’t they restrict themselves to doing some developmental work here… and leave our political future to us and our elected governments?”
“Why is it that you people focus only and entirely on the Sri Lankan army, and not on the brutality of the LTTE? I know it intimately. I have witnessed it for decades and indeed was forced to be part of it. Please tell them in your reports to forget the past and concentrate on the future. For us in this country that is the bottom line!”
The author comments: “The condemnation of violations by the LTTE is there – in the fine print – in all recent UN resolutions against Colombo. But it is never the same fanfare of publicity and vigour as is the key demand for condemning Rajapaksa and insisting on an international inquiry.”
Although Ms Rao is a foreigner, there is nothing of the dilettante parachute journalist about her. She has been visiting and writing about Sri Lanka for two and half decades. For fourteen years, she was the South Asia bureau chief of the Hamburg-based Der Spiegel. She has interviewed everybody who is anybody – Mahinda Rajapaksa (she was the first foreign journalist interview him when he was first sworn in as president and the first print reporter to interview him after the end of the war), Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremasinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga (who typically kept her waiting for 14 hours), Prabhakaran (who also kept her waiting), Karuna, Douglas Devananda, CV Wigneswaran, MA Sumanthiran, R Sampanthan, GL Peiris, Erik Solheim, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, General Sarath Fonseka, Major General Udaya Perera (“write what you like. But have a dosa.”), Major General Hathurasinghe,Lakshman Kadirgamar (“an inspiration and one of the few people who left me tongue-tied as a reporter”), Daya Master, Jehan Perera, KP, Dilhan Fernando, Hiran Cooray, junior members of all branches of the state’s armed forces, former male and female LTTE cadres, as well as numerous ordinary citizens of all ethnicities. She travelled far and wide island-wide and visited peripheral islands.
Throughout the book she reminds us that she is paying for travel and accommodation herself. She also stresses that she encountered no interference from the government or the army.
Despite her broad and deep knowledge of Sri Lanka, Padma Rao approaches her task with humility. “This book is neither meant as unsolicited advice, nor as admonishment, nor critique of either Tamil or Sinhalese Sri Lankans”. She humbly apologises in advance for any errors.
Sri Lanka: The New Country by Padma Rao Sundarji was first published on February 15 2015 by Harper-Collins, India. It is now available on Kindle.