The Jakarta Post
My late grandmother Victoria Gonzales once told me that Sri Lanka was really beautiful. 'Even more beautiful than Kerala,' she said, which is quite a thing for a Malayalee to say.
But she was talking about Sri Lanka in the late 1930s when she stopped over on the way from India to Malaya.
I have always been quite keen to visit Sri Lanka. About a decade ago, I was assigned to go there, but the trip was cancelled because of two bomb attacks.
I took it in my stride because that's what you expected of Sri Lanka. For as long as I remember, there was strife there. The separatist war waged by the Tamil minority Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Singhala majority government was the main focal point, but there were many other subtexts.
These ranged from the bloody insurgency of the left wing militant Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the early 1970s to the slaughter of other armed Tamil separatist groups by the LTTE in the mid 1980s. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, including that of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa.
It was a scar on the psyche of every Sri Lankan I met, and these Lankans include many Malaysians. Quite a few were angry and bitter. And almost all were sad.
When the major war finally ended in 2009, I rejoiced because I hoped it would mean the turning of the corner. This wasn't a judgment over the rights and wrongs of the war, just a recognition that peace was sorely needed.
I've just come back from 10 days in Sri Lanka and I was mightily encouraged by what I saw. Yes, Sri Lanka is playing catch up in terms of development, but with peace and stability, it is a nation primed for robust growth.
Ironically, the man credited with ending the war and reigniting progress has just been shown the door. Long time president Mahinda Rajapakse lost the recent elections to one of his own Cabinet ministers, Maithripala Sirisena.
The feeling was that voters were wary of Rajapakse's increasing hold on power. It didn't help that his son Namal was an MP and his brothers Gotabhaya and Basil were Cabinet ministers, while another sibling Chamal was Speaker of Parliament!
Niran Gunasinghe, a Lankan who lived briefly in Malaysia, told me: 'Rajapakse did many things for Sri Lanka. But the reason he lost is he gave too much power to his brothers. People were scared of a family dictatorship.'
Taxi drivers are always a good source of political gossip, and Ranjit wasn't one to mince his words. A supporter of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to which both Rajapakse and Sirisena belonged, he said: 'I like president Sirisena. He is a humble man. When Rajapakse uses the road it is closed for everyone else. Sirisena doesn't do that.'
He pointed to the Sandahiru stupa, a partially completed vainglorious construction designed in the style of centuries old stupas in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.
Meant to celebrate the end of the civil war, it was viewed as an example of Rajapakse's ego gone wild.
'The project is abandoned now,' said Ranjit, 'It stopped the moment he lost the election.'
Still driving along the highways that Rajapakse had constructed, visiting well-preserved historical sites like the mountain palace of Sigiriya and the Dutch fort in Galle, and checking out Colombo's busy financial districts, I was pleased to see the potential of Sri Lanka being realised.
The balance between respecting our cultural heritage and nature on the one hand, and pushing through important development projects on the other, is a difficult one. But I can attest that much of what I saw on Sri Lanka is still beautiful.
A veteran at the Galle Library, A. Dudley is cautiously optimistic, saying that the few years of peace since 2009 are among the best he has known.
'For many years in Sri Lanka, you don't know when you are going to die. You go to work and there may be a bomb blast. So many suffered. All lived in fear. And in the end it came to nothing. It was a useless war,' he told me. There's a lesson there for Malaysians, I thought to myself.
The challenges Sirisena faces are manifold. A parliamentary election is due in coming weeks and it will be tricky as he bolted the SLFP to team up with arch rivals the United National Party.
The new president has talked of initiating a war crimes tribunal to investigate human rights abuses during the war.
He says he is committed to a devolution of power so that future presidents cannot concentrate too much of it in their own hands.
He is trying to maintain the delicate balance between China and India, one that Rajapakse ignored in favour of a pro-China policy that angered India.
Sri Lanka still bears some hallmarks of a violent society. The new president's brother was hacked to death in an axe attack the day before I arrived, in what is believed to be a love triangle gone wrong.
There are militant Sinhala Buddhist groupings like Bodu Bada Sena, mirroring trends in Myanmar and Thailand. These groups target Muslim minorities and need to dealt with firmly.
Let's not kid ourselves that all scars have healed. But if I were of Sri Lankan heritage, I would catch a flight back there today to see the changes, and see what I could do to help rebuild the country. (***)
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