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Trying to Find Answers in Sri Lanka

By Adele Barker

At Sainthamaruthu Beach, Eastern Sri Lanka, where the militants detonated themselves on the Easter Sunday Sri Lanka bombings.
At Sainthamaruthu Beach, Eastern Sri Lanka. The militants would detonate themselves in this city the Friday after Easter Sunday. Photo credit: Shamli071.

I still crush garlic with the back of a wooden spoon. And once a month, I look up at the moon and say to myself, “it’s a poya,” the Sinhalese word for ‘full moon.’ I carry the island inside me, though it has been years since we lived there. I haven’t been back to Sri Lanka since 2012 and am struggling as many are to explain the Easter Sunday horror in churches and hotels where people were celebrating the holidays.

In 2001-2002, my son and I lived in the city of Kandy, and I taught at the University of Peradeniya. In the hills around Kandy, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Burghers lived and worked side by side. Muslim merchants ran their tea and spice shops and on Fridays went to mosque. The venerable St. Paul’s Anglican Church, built under the British in 1845, stood in the center of town just off to the side of the Temple of the Tooth (the Dalida Maligawa), one of the sites most sacred in Buddhism. A Catholic Seminary lay up the street from where I lived. Friends who are Buddhists gave offerings at the Hindu kovil/temple down the street.

We drank tea together. We lived in peace.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka often surprised me. Leading every political demonstration on campus or in town were young monks in their saffron robes. I came to understand that Buddhism here was not a philosophy of retreat and contemplation I had thought it to be, but rather one of political and social engagement. Buddhist friends told me that the island was sacred since the Buddha himself was reputed to have visited it several times. The island must be protected, I was told, because it was sacred to Lord Buddha.

As the news of the past two weeks unfolded, a town called Sainthamaruthu on the eastern side of Sri Lanka made the news. Here, several militants detonated themselves, taking with them women and children and leaving a cache of weapons they had stockpiled. The name of the town sounded familiar. I got out a detailed map of the island and found it. There it was, just north of Arugam Bay. I remembered that I had written about it. It was one of the places most heavily damaged in the 2004 tsunami. It had taken a direct hit.

The east coast of Sri Lanka sustained the worst damage in the tsunami. Its shallow shores couldn’t hold the wave back. That part of the island is also heavily Muslim. When the wave receded, the dead (if found) were buried, and the clean-up began, civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Singhalese government regained its momentum. The western side of the island where the tourist beaches are located were the first to be rebuilt. The north and east had to wait their turn. These were not tourist areas. Besides, they still had a war to fight.

That war ended in 2009 in a bloody battle with both sides accusing the other of genocide. The wounds of the past twenty-six years still festered on all sides. By 2012, things were beginning to look up on the island. I went back to a country where tourism was on the rise, where the economy was beginning to recover, and where hope that the nightmares of the past twenty-six years were behind it was rekindled. One day, I was attending a conference in Colombo on the post-war situation. Sri Lanka’s Muslims were bitter. They had been chased off 2,000 acres by the Tamil Tigers during the war, expelled from Jaffna in the north, and given twenty-four hours to leave. What were the Tamils (who are predominately Hindu) even doing in the eastern part of this country? they asked. There are mosques and Sufi shrines here, even Buddhist statues. What were they doing here? They had no business being here; they were taking our land.

It was just about that time that a nationalist Buddhist group calling itself Bodu Bala Sena, known locally as BBS, began to raise its voice on the island calling out Sri Lankan Buddhists for selling their souls and capitulating to foreign influences. But it was Muslims who were their real targets. It was Muslims taking their land, Muslims taking their jobs. It was Sri Lankas’s Muslims funding international terrorist organizations with money from Halal-certified food businesses. For BBS, it is Sri Lanka for the Sri Lankans, and for them that means Buddhists.

Right now, the government of Sri Lanka, itself the target of much criticism over its failure to share the information that could have prevented the Easter Sunday bombings, is working along with foreign intelligence agencies to put the pieces of what happened together. I have done little else but think of this over the past week and a half. This is what I remember.

I remember the monks in Kandy leading the political protests in 2001-2002. Did I miss its implications? I remember walking as much of the circumference of the island as was possible two years after the tsunami. I remember the Muslim east coast where the rubble of war was indistinguishable from that of the tsunami. All of it came to the same thing: Lives lost. I remember Muslim bitterness at that conference. And the growth of Bodu Bala Sena that trained its sights on Muslims. Bitterness, loss, and being told that the country you are living in is not yours create spaces of despair. Into those spaces, radicalization can easily take hold.         

On this small island shaped like a tear drop, I believe that is exactly what happened.


About the Author 

Adele Barker is a Professor of Russian at the University of Arizona and the author of Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka (Beacon, 2010). She returned from a year teaching in Pakistan and is currently at work on a book on teaching post 9/11 in Pakistan