Rasheeda Bhagat

Sri Lanka rediscovers itself

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on March 12, 2018

Forget all the cannonfire: Sri Lanka is a particularly decent place for women. - Malyshev Oleg/shutterstock.com

Six years after the civil war, the island nation reaches out to the world with its natural beauty and innate civility

Each time I visit Sri Lanka I come away impressed all over again by the stunningly beautiful green and clean tiny island-nation and its amazing people. For one, you don’t hear the all-pervasive, irritating honking on the roads.

And surprise of surprises, for Indians at least, even taxi drivers politely halt to allow pedestrians to cross the road. And they do so specially for women.

And even if somebody darts across, with the mobile phone irritatingly plastered to his ear, there are no swear words. Generally people tend to be polite, courteous and soft spoken.

Bouncing back

Ravaged by long years of an ethnic conflict that proved to be among the bloodiest in the world, the nation and its people held on grimly, patiently and often helplessly, living their lives amidst uncertainly, excesses of security and violence.

In Tamil Nadu, of course, emotions run high, often, though not always, rightly so when it comes to the dogged and determined manner in which the Mahinda Rajapaksa government got rid of the LTTE. For there was gross violation of human rights — show me one conflict zone where there isn’t — but then the tiny country bore the brunt of the LTTE’s violent onslaught for far too long.

Too many lives were lost, too many suicide bombings carried out and innumerable peace negotiations failed to leave the Sri Lankan government any option. Remember that daring attack on the Bandarnaike International airport in Colombo in 2001 that destroyed many commercial and military aircraft?

Sri Lankan cities, particularly Colombo, were virtually under siege. All visitors had to carry their passports and were stopped and interrogated on Colombo’s roads, sometimes several times in a single day.

Sandbag and other barricades, gun-toting military men and painful security checks at the airports smothered tourists, and yet, during the worst of the ethnic conflict years tourists continued to visit this beautiful island with its stunning beaches, its rich history and culture and delicious sea food.

Tourism takes off

It’s six years since the annihilation of the LTTE, and the emerald waters and greenery of Sri Lanka have become even more inviting. Tourists are pouring in and you can no longer get multi-star hotels with stunning beach front properties at sub-$70 a night as was possible in the conflict years.

By the way, the locals refer to the past as “war”, plain and simple. When you mention the past, they invariably ask: “Oh you were here during the war?” One pitfall of Western tourists flooding Sri Lanka is that those of us with modest pockets can now only pick up odd bits at the ubiquitous ODEL showrooms that have proliferated all over the place. Locals don’t shop here, my taxi driver says disapprovingly when asked to drive there.

I am at a Rotary conference at a beautiful beach resort in Wadduwa about 35 km from Colombo. Sri Lankan Rotarians are extremely proud of the crucial role the incoming Rotary International President KR Ravindran, founder and CEO of the publicly listed tea-packaging company Printcare Plc, played in negotiating a ceasefire with the LTTE during the conflict years. This enabled the polio immunisation of infants in its northern strongholds. The result was Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in the region to be declared polio free.

Literacy makes a difference

But if Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with Nigeria, still grapple with polio and the Taliban has shot dead over 380 polio workers in Pakistan, the crucial difference between these countries and Sri Lanka is that unlike the Taliban, the LTTE was literate and intelligent enough to understand that a polio virus breakout won’t spare their children either.

Just as in India too Rotary leaders worked quietly but persistently with the Muslim religious leadership to educate the community that polio drops won’t make their children infertile, which is the major Taliban propaganda in Pakistan.

Literacy and education impact other aspects of life as well. Granted, Sri Lanka has a population of only 20.96 million but even the poor there seem to wear their poverty with dignity.

They dress neatly, you don’t see begging on the streets, and above all, no chasing or harassment of tourists that we seem to revel in. Call them laid back, not as sharp or “smart” as Indians, whatever… there is a certain calmness and dignity in their demeanour.

Gender scores

What is most admirable is the gender ratio and how women are treated in Sri Lanka. Against India, particularly affluent India — South Delhi, Ahmedabad, etc – continuing to kill its daughters in the womb, the male-female ratio in Sri Lanka is 49.3:50.7; just as nature intended it to be. Our latest count, according to the website countrymeteres.info which gives you births and deaths by the second, is 51.6:48.4. That sums up the value we put on the female child in particular and female worth in general.

To a question I toss to a group of local friends on how Sri Lanka treats its women, one caustic reply making me flinch is: “In Sri Lanka girls are certainly not raped in moving buses, or pulled out of buses and raped; that’s for sure.”

Another perceptive comment is that there is no caste-based violence against women as in India.

Of course, there is sexual violence against women, as anywhere in the world, and excesses by the Sri Lankan army in torturing and raping Tamil women, particularly female LTTE militants, have shocked the world, and is one aspect in their history that the Sri Lankan men are ashamed of.

But comparatively speaking, Sri Lankan women are more educated, emancipated and live in a much more liberal society. Certainly they do not get lectured at, as Indian women do, on what to wear, how to behave, not to drink and above all, to return home at a “decent” hour as all “decent” women do.

From what I can see, analyse and evaluate from several visits to our tiny neighbouring country during the last two decades, the education of both men and women makes a big difference in the general behaviour of people. Add to this a dash of culture and a moderately liberal society and even a casual visitor to Sri Lanka can see that it’s a far more friendly and comfortable country for women than our own.

Published on April 27, 2015

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