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Can democracy triumph in a land long riven by religious and ethnic strife?

By Lana Ferguson


O n the august floor of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, two angry men dressed in white throw punches at each other. Suddenly, they are on the floor, wrestling, surrounded by a throng of screaming men.

The toll: One man hospitalized in a neck brace, a video of the brawl going viral on social media, and a fragile nation wondering if Parliament is descending into the same sort of internecine chaos that split the island into warring factions for nearly three bloody decades.

Welcome to the early days of the fledgling reform government of President Maithripala Sirisena, who is struggling to heal war wounds, help people forget the abuses of a deposed autocrat’s regime, and rebuild an economy up to its neck in government debt.

Hey, nobody said democracy would be easy, especially in the aftermath of a 26-year civil war that killed as many as 100,000 people. The war sprang from longstanding ethnic and religious rancor between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils whose rebel army terrorized the island with suicide bombings and assassinations before it was wiped out in a merciless final assault by government forces.

The events leading up to the parliamentary fisticuffs reveal just how deeply divided the country is, at least politically. Allies of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted the military to keep protecting him. Meanwhile, the new government was providing Rajapaksa plenty of police protection, but never mind. This was about old wounds, enmity and politics.

The sordid little scuffle in Sri Lanka’s raucous Parliament illustrated how difficult the transition from autocratic rule was to be in the months to come, especially with the former president sitting in Parliament and his party accused of fanning the flames of Buddhist nationalism in one of the world’s first Buddhist kingdoms.

But amid all the noise, all the chaos, there was more than a glimmer of hope.

The speaker of Parliament, calm, gentlemanly Karu Jayasuriya, who once talked Marxist terrorists out of taking him off to be executed, restored order and quickly suspended both brawling lawmakers. It sent a message.

A little more than a year later, the reform government is slowly making headway, delicately picking its way through the political minefields that come with a coalition “unity government” that includes the former president’s party. But the point is, an Asian nation friendly to the United States is finding its way, determined not to fall back into self-destructive traps that have waylaid the island so many times since the British granted independence in 1948.

And, oh, the traps are legion. Consider perhaps the biggest: the debt trap.

With U.S. support, the United Nations accused Rajapaksa’s regime of war crimes and human rights violations. Heaping scorn on the charges, Rajapaksa insisted his men went to the battlefront “carrying a gun in one hand and the human rights charter in the other.” Desperate for allies, he turned to China to keep his struggling economy afloat. China, eager to expand its maritime access to the region, ponied up $8 billion in loans to the government.

Rajapaksa also embarked on a dizzying series of costly post-war projects, including expensive new highways and a new city in the jungle with what became the world’s emptiest international airport. From 2009 to 2014, the country’s debt tripled. Meanwhile, the Chinese dug in deeper. Chinese investors committed hundreds of millions to enhance Colombo’s port and build a new seaport on the southeast coast. Today, it has almost no traffic.

The national debt has ballooned another 12 percent under Sirisena, who took over in 2015, to somewhere over $60 billion, including loans from the IMF and World Bank. In August, the prime minister admitted no one was sure exactly how much the government really owes.

As a result, an astounding 95 percent of government revenue goes to pay debt. Sri Lanka will be paying for many years to come. Meanwhile, costly needs at home must be ignored. One wonders how patient people will be.

Jayasuriya, once one of the nation’s premier businessmen, is an old hand at solving thorny problems. In an August interview with University of Mississippi student journalists, the speaker calmly acknowledged the debt dilemma. Then, steely-eyed, he said, “We have not missed a single payment.” He said the economy is improving and the country is growing and challenges are to be expected.

He has a point. It is still early.

And it is not as if Sirisena’s administration has done nothing to knit the country back together. He campaigned on a promise to reduce presidential power and return Sri Lanka to a parliamentary democracy. In 2015, Parliament amended the constitution, limiting the president to two five-year terms instead of unlimited six-year terms, and keeping him from dissolving Parliament for four-and-a-half years, instead of after only one. The government is now trying to draft a new constitution that would provide more minority rights and power sharing.

Sirisena even pardoned the former rebel who tried to assassinate him with a roadside claymore mine, releasing him a year into a 10-year sentence.

The government also created an Office of Missing Persons to seek the fate of as many as 16,000 to 22,000 people who went missing during the fighting and its tense aftermath, when so-called “disappearances” were rampant.

Jayasuriya pushed his Right to Information bill through Parliament in 2016, giving citizens access to public information and making the government more transparent. The speaker called it “a major step” toward a culture of transparency and accountability, “which is crucial in preventing human rights abuses.”

He also named the leader of the Tamil National Alliance to the office of Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, a historic moment that he said “demonstrated respect for the equality and equity for all citizens.”

But it has not been easy. Social justice never is.


With Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism still simmering, key reforms, including a proposal for the executive branch to give up some powers to local governments, have proven politically contentious. So have other Tamil reconciliation measures, including the new constitution. It would have to be passed by a two-thirds majority of Parliament and approved in a public referendum. So far, Buddhist opposition has helped slow that process to a crawl.

There were early hopes that the new regime would lead to an accounting of horrific war crimes committed by both sides, generally acknowledged as a necessary step to reconciliation. But Sirisena has rejected a U.N. demand for outside judges to examine claims of widespread torture, “disappearances” and other abuses by the Rajapaksa military as well as claims that the rebel Tamil Tigers used civilians as shields and forced children as young as 14 to fight. The U.N. has given the island another two years to meet its demands.

That isn’t likely. In November, amid fresh reports of Tamils being tortured under the new government, the president defiantly repeated his vow to protect generals and other “heroes” of the civil war from war crime prosecutions. Meanwhile, Tamils and other minorities remain on the fringes of society.

And in the north, still dotted with military barracks surrounded by barbed wire, sad-faced women camp out in makeshift shelters along roads, clutching huge pictures of missing loved ones and demanding answers. Many Tamils would love to break away and form their own country or be given some form of self-rule in the north. But Sinhalese show little appetite to pick at old war scabs.

These are old, old grudges. Feelings run deep. There is danger here.

Some fear that if Sirisena moves too aggressively on controversial reforms, it might trigger a Buddhist backlash and a return to a more autocratic leader. Others, such as Jehan Perera of the island’s National Peace Council, see hope in the fact that Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority won the war, then elected a government pledged to pursue reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe questioned whether Sri Lanka has even succeeded in building a nation. In a speech to a special session of Parliament to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the prime minister said Sri Lankans “are yet to provide a political solution and unify the country.”

For the young government, it’s a balancing act of heroic proportions – a struggle for the soul of this former colonial spice island. It’s a battle Jayasuriya and his allies are willing to fight.

For the rarest of things is happening here.

In a turbulent world where democracy is under fire in every corner, the smiling people of Sri Lanka are trying to build a stronger democracy.

They are running against the wind, challenging an international trend toward a volatile mix of extremist religion and politics that has increasingly led to conflict. From Afghanistan to Syria and Yemen and beyond, the United States is pursuing a never-ending war against the jihadi terrorists of the Islamic State. In Myanmar, Buddhist mobs attack mosques and burn homes of Muslim Rohingya, 600,000 of whom fled to Bangladesh in what the U.N. calls ethnic cleansing. Ethnic and religious violence has flared in Nigeria and Somalia. And Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka have occasionally attacked mosques and burned Muslim businesses.

Yet, tensions have undeniably eased since the end of the Rajapaksa regime and the government has been quick to crack down when militant monks get out of hand.

It is well to remember that this place, hidden away in the crook of southern Asia, has long been one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Salty Indian Ocean air flows into traffic-crazy streets. Spices tingle your nose and warm your tongue while freshly steeped tea soothes your throat. Grizzled men perch precariously on stilts, dangling above the surf to fish. Exotic animals peek back at you from every corner. But the people are the best part.

“The Sri Lankans are called the land of the smiling people,” Jayasuriya said. “No matter what happens we are always smiling. Very warm, hospitable.”

In fact, Jayasuriya insists, the ethnic divisions that everyone writes about are not as bad as they seem. “It is the politicians,” he says, and some in the media that cause all the trouble. Outside of politics, for the most part, people get along.

And there are undeniable signs of growth. Condo and office towers are sprouting on the Colombo skyline. Small luxury hotels are popping up in towns along coastlines once ravaged by a tsunami. The tourism industry is thriving. Things are clearly better. Out in the countryside, a heady mix of mountain rain forest and untrammeled beaches, people couldn’t seem happier.

This lush, gorgeous island – Sri Lankans compare it to the Garden of Eden – seems poised for economic explosion if the peace can be kept. When you move around the countryside and talk to people, you cannot help rooting for little Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankans are called the land of the smiling people. No matter what happens we are always smiling. Very warm, hospitable.

-Karu Jayasuriya


They arrive at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, once a British governor’s opulent seaside mansion, every evening around 6 p.m., greeted as old friends by doormen in British colonial garb.

The swells make their way through a regal lobby full of statuary and massive mirrors, the picture of old colonial lavishness, and head up a grand staircase to a sprawling dining area where all the bounty of this island nation is spread before them in a vast buffet. Some choose to dine outside, sipping white wine on a terrace that overlooks the bay and beyond, the twinkling lights of Colombo, the capital.

Yes, the tourists are back, lured by the end of the fighting and the sweet fruits and exotic riches of what is fast becoming the newest Asian hot spot, a place to see and be seen.

They are all here, mostly Asians, but also plenty of Americans, British, Germans, Spanish. Standing on the terrace in the evening breeze, effusive British investor Robert Ross swept his arm grandly toward the lights of the capital and called the island “a phantasmagoria.”

“Do you know what that word means? Look it up. It means a rapid, bewildering sequence of fantastic images, like a hallucination, or a dream.”

Outside the city, such images appear around every turn of Sri Lanka’s curvy roads.

On the way to the highlands, young tourists who’ve never seen an elephant outside of a zoo tentatively rub their hands along its coarse, hairy, weathered skin.

Several tons of beast slowly sways into motion, thudding toward a stream. He wades in, kneels, lies down as gentle as an elephant can and half submerges himself in the chilly water, huge ears loudly flapping his approval. College girls from the States dip hands into the stream and splash cold mountain water on the mammal. Then they get to scrubbing with coconut husks.

As soon as bath time is over, images appear all over Facebook and Instagram. Friends, family, and followers thousands of miles away fawn over the pictures. That’s advertising money can’t buy.

It’s not just the elephants. Animals roam everywhere: leopards prowl, birds sing, whales splash, and sloth bears mosey. A lot of the species are native to only Sri Lanka. Waves crash along the shoreline of glorious white sand beaches; rugged hands pick tea leaves along dense, green hillsides of terraced tea plantations; fauna speckle the landscape in all the colors of the rainbow. Any foodie can cure a craving with an island-wide feast of fish and fruit. The bread’s good, too. There isn’t a street without an ancient Buddhist temple or Hindu shrine, and giant statues of Buddha himself peer down from mountainsides.


Miles up the jammed road, barricades mark off the main streets of the ancient royal capital of Kandy and people cram shoulder to shoulder onto sidewalks with no room to budge. They arrive hours early, then patiently stand and wait in the tropical heat for a three-hour extravaganza celebrating Buddhism. Some are visiting for the first time. Others make this pilgrimage every year. All come for the same reason.

They want to see the tooth. Or, at least, its replica.

Kandy’s Esala Perahera, or the Festival of the Tooth, pays homage to what is said to be a tooth from the Buddha himself, a sacred relic housed in the appropriately named Temple of the Tooth nearby. Buddhists travel from all over the world to witness the exotic parade and visit the temple, many dressed in bright white from head to toe.

And now, it is after sunset. The drums accelerate to fever pitch. Bare-chested men with red sarongs run along streets barefoot twirling fire, a firecracker-like sound explodes in the air as men snap long whips with incredible ferocity, stilt walkers tower over the crowd moving with ease, and Buddhist flags flap in the breeze. All the while, hundreds of elephants follow, waddling along in vibrant, reflective costumes laden with strings of lights.

Demand is so strong storefronts have been emptied out, then packed with flimsy plastic chairs. These coveted seats go for upwards of $100. All night long, every chair is filled.

Suddenly, even seated customers are on their feet. A shuffling elephant packs on its mighty back a gilded box said to contain a replica of the Buddha’s tooth. Excitement sparks. This is what they came for and now they’ve seen it.

But what’s this at the back of the parade? Delegations from three local Hindu temples march between the throngs. Local people say this has gone on for years. For this cultural celebration, at least, Hindus and Buddhists put aside their differences and work together to assure success for one of the largest Buddhist festivals in Asia. It makes you wonder: Can’t we all just get along?

Natural disasters don’t discriminate. They don’t care who won the war, who lost it, or what God people worship. After the 2004 tsunami killed more than 35,000 people, leveled hotels and interrupted life over the entire teardrop-shaped island, Sri Lankans didn’t discriminate either.

Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Tamils, and Sinhalese alike rushed to help. Religion and ethnicity were set aside and Sri Lankans came together to save lives and nurse each other down the long road to recovery.

Frequent floods and mudslides caused by monsoon rains have produced this same sense of community again and again, as recently as the May 2017 mudslides that killed more than 200 along the southwest coast.

When the tsunami hit, thousands died along that same coast.

But not in Galle Fort, a walled city toward the southern tip of the island. Forceful waves pounded stone walls erected by the Dutch in the 17th century to no avail. These massive ramparts that protected the fort from a tsunami and military assaults, repelled more than that. Unintentionally, they’ve kept out rampant development and other outside influences for centuries. Inside, the old colonial influence and its history as an ancient port of trade have created a curious population of Dutch Burghers, Moors, Portuguese, Germans, British, and native Sri Lankans.

Antique salesman Ahamed Hassen was born in the town, raised by Muslims, taught by Catholics, and has remained there his entire life.  

“We have, uniquely in Galle, all races living in unity here,” Hassen said.

Galle Fort and its people are proud of the old Dutch fortifications, the Dutch architecture, the improved entrance sculpted by the British, its many museums, and its hospitality.

They boast of the 17th-century Amangalla Hotel, with its luxurious teak floors and high ceilings. They point out British and Dutch churches and Buddhist shrines cozied up next to storefronts and schoolhouses.

These people have turned their little town of 130 acres into a living museum, a monument to both preservation and diversity. It’s a microcosm of what Sri Lanka is and what it could be if everyone else in the country were so tolerant.


In Baduraliya, 40 women have packed a humble concrete block building up the hill from a busy road. They are discussing how it is that in this male-dominated Buddhist society, they have emerged as village leaders.

Each one of them has the same answer: Together. We did it together.

Dayangami Magura’s eyes are moist and pleading with passion. She wants to make you understand how far they have come. She tells how it used to be. How they were barely scraping by. How the children suffered in inferior schools. How middlemen took all the money when they tried to sell bundles of valuable tea leaves plucked from their small hillside plots. How banks made it impossible to get cheap credit. How the men, overcome by hopelessness, turned to drink and tobacco and left the women to cook and clean and raise the kids and try to hold things together.

Then the women got together, coached by a non-profit group, and pooled their money, skills and wisdom as the men scoffed and did nothing but fight the idea. If you all help each other, the non-profit told them, you can solve your own problems.

Then it happened.

They bypassed the middlemen, direct-marketed their tea to buyers, organized demonstrations to prod reluctant officials into improving local schools, helped each other harvest crops, used pooled pennies to fund loans to distressed members.

With their leadership, villagers’ pockets previously filled with nothing but lint transformed into millions of rupees in their hands in less than a decade. Houses were built. People were fed. Husbands stopped wasting household income on alcohol and tobacco. Children learned more. People supported themselves and their families for the first time ever.

The entire village flourished. The future was no longer a thing to fear. Social justice had come to Baduraliya.

The women had lifted themselves up, beat overwhelming odds, and become a model for what some think the rest of Sri Lanka is capable of.

“When we are together we have power,” Magura said. “We are not scared of any challenges anymore. We will face them. We are empowered, so we can handle ourselves.”

Sri Lanka has more daunting challenges than it can handle. But villages like this and the small-town people in them represent hope, hope that Sri Lanka can beat the odds, make this new democracy work and overcome centuries of religious and ethnic strife.

And when you talk to them, you start to think they just might make it.