It’s the anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule, thus also the kairotic moment prompting me to finally collect my thoughts around a range of social media content appearing on my feeds lately, primarily around tourism and programs of study in Sri Lanka. I’m used to seeing ads encouraging tourism in Sri Lanka, and tourism is often deployed to boost a postwar economy, especially in countries whose “beauty” is extolled. In these ads and travelogues, I find a fairly consistent discourse of (ancient) exoticism, the (ancient) beauty of nature, an (ancient, mystic) spiritualism that leans Buddhist and New Age/self-help, attended by a rhetoric of healing. And all of this discourse is harmful, exclusionary, reinforcing and benefiting victors’ nationalist narratives and revised histories, of who the country really belongs to and how “Sri Lanka” as a country should be defined: as west, south, and center, neatly cutting out the Tamil-dominated north and east. I find abstract violence in this, but it’s one thing to see it in tourism ads, or the Twitter feeds of a couple of obliviously vacationing non-local (usually white) friends, colleagues, or distant acquaintances. It’s another thing to see it embedded and produced in/around study abroad programs whose aims and destinations don’t take “Sri Lanka” as a whole, and whose promotional and instructional materials seem to gloss over Sri Lanka’s grim post-conflict realities in favor of flowers, sunsets, energy, healing, celebration, and (especially) the importance of contemplating and recognizing beauty.
As a graduate student/newly minted FT faculty member, it still feels risky to publicize my reactions to established programs, instructors, directors, but. The idea that students become implicated or trained in this way of seeing, and that scholars I admire or teach respond positively to this way of seeing. That feels like actual violence. That’s what the educator-activist in me can’t let go.
I’ve seen a number of posts like this recently, but the program of study that’s been sticking with me like a stone in the throat is UVM’s study abroad program, which seems to focus on Buddhism and places like Colombo, Galle, Anuradhapura, Polunnaruwa, Mihintale. It’s a list of destinations representative of the south and west, predominantly Sinhalese-Buddhist, and a geographical selection that excludes Tamil-Hindus (as well as Muslims in the north and east). Postwar travel to the north and east isn’t as difficult as it was a decade ago, and I’d imagine it’s even easier for white travelers. (My experience visiting Polunnaruwa, before the war ended, was of a soldier lifting his gun at me, but that’s a different story.) I assume, from reading the social media posts, that there’s a rationale for these destinations, maybe grounded in planned coursework, readings, a focus on Buddhism. But even then, don’t we have a responsibility to ourselves and our students to visit diverse sites, visit with diverse interlocutors, to expose them to multiple partial perspectives, to complicate their understandings of what has been and still is an often politicized, not always nonviolent religion? Don’t we have a responsibility to create and ask for work that reflects ethical principles, such as not catering to or funding nationalistic or chauvinistic endeavors or narratives, which means investing as much time, money, and (written) contemplation on the north, east, sites that still bear the marks of war, Tamils who still live in shadow?
I tweeted about this recently, though it was probably swallowed by the #wpalistservfeministrevolution backchannel that was running in parallel, so I’ll summarize those thoughts here. “Sri Lanka” seems to always mean west, south, upcountry, and rarely if ever the east or north, except as an aside from or a hyperlink to newspapers or NGO press releases. It makes me wonder what these tourists, writers, and study abroad programs intend the experience of “Sri Lanka” to be. Who profits from these visits. Whose monuments, religions, memories, and histories are prioritized, who authors those histories, whose histories are overlooked. For instance, Tamil monuments and sites of remembrance have been demolished. Sri Lanka remains the land of the disappeared, of a lack of accountability for war crimes. “Tourism as economic revival” for the country has always read to me like code for ethnic erasure at a profit for the Sinhalese victors, who can downplay any “white van fear” they might have, as opposed to local Tamil human rights workers and journalists who scrambled to go underground the second it seemed like Mahinda Rajapaksa might return to power.
It’s a strange wound I reopen when I look at (usually white) travelers’ photos and posts. It is a beautiful place, but why are beauty and spiritualism the narratives we impose onto a country where accountability is scarce or nil, Tamil lands and heritage face ongoing appropriation or destruction, and the disappeared stay disappeared with no closure for the families left behind? When I look at programs like this one, I hope to see indications that these stories will get told, but that requires a direct engagement with the truths and falsehoods around war and postwar, which don’t belong to tour guide monks alone. So who do these travelers ask, if their travels rarely extend to the north and east? What kinds of truths and perspectives do they expect to receive by limiting their travels? And if they acquire a language, which? At what point does traveling cease being an exercise in observing nationalism at work, and when and where does that nationalism get challenged in instructor assignments and student writing? Without considering “Sri Lanka” as north, east, west, south, as a very unhealed whole, isn’t an ethical consideration of all its collective experiences and ways of life foreclosed?
I ask these questions like I don’t know the answers. At a casual glance, at least, these programs of study are designed to support Sinhala chauvinism. The participants might pick up some Sinhala along the way, as though the Sinhala Only Language Act didn’t ramp up preexisting ethnic tensions back in the day. Nationalist monuments and Buddhist temples and ruins seize these travelers’ wonder. All their narratives are about wonder. It contradicts the discourse of beauty to point to hunger strikes by mothers of the disappeared, or to write about how Independence Day is received very differently in the north and east. (University of Jaffna Tamil students, for instance, lowered the national flag and replaced it with a black one.) If the course of study focuses on writing, shouldn’t writing be used as an act of conscience, as a way of giving space to what is ugly, fraught, and unfortunately commonplace? Shouldn’t it be a way of challenging existing political, religious, ethnic, etc. narratives in Sri Lanka, challenging students to articulate the problematic nature of these narratives? Unless I missed it, I didn’t see a mention of hardline extremist Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka perpetrating anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim violence, and to conduct a comprehensive study of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, aren’t those histories essential? And shouldn’t we also call out non-participants who respond to these studies and their travelogues with compliments and gratitude for their multicultural writing and perspective, shouldn’t we ask for perspectives that are complete, that acknowledge the north and east in a substantive way, giving it equal space and weight?
I won’t assign motives to any of these programs, but as a Sri Lankan-American Tamil myself, and a teacher, and a rhetorician, it reads to me like an implicit reverence for or celebration of Sinhalese-Buddhist culture, despite its nationalist overtones, like another form of exclusion or erasure that could potentially be perpetuated in what students learn and produce.
As a counterpoint to those narratives and ways of studying Sri Lanka, Mario Arulthas has an incisive thread about Sinhala supremacy and Independence Day in Sri Lanka (link to thread below):
But sure, let’s call it a beautiful country, and look for signs of healing everywhere.