Sri Lanka: The New Country - A Fine Example of Good Reportage

In March earlier this year I had gone to Colombo in Sri Lanka for work. Coincidentally, it followed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's successful visit to the country that had elected a new President, Maithripala Sirisena a few weeks earlier. While I drove around in taxis and visited offices, courteous Sri Lankans, of Sinhalese and Malay descent, kept talking to me in pidgin English about how they find our new PM fascinating, and how Indians generally are seen as good friendly neighbors but for the destructive Sri Lankan Tamil politics practiced by Tamil Nadu politicians. I was witness to a post-engagement lunch in the restaurant where I ate of a Tamil couple, being served with prompt attention by the mostly Sinhala staff. Much of it then made me wonder whether much of the reportage as I saw for Sri Lanka and its problems in the post-LTTE phase deserved attention.

In this context, I decided to pick up a book written by Padma Rao Sundarji, an old Indian hand of South Asian journalism (mostly for the German language media) curiously titled Sri Lanka: A Country Revisited, which confirmed many things that I had on my mind. It also made me partially re-orient my position on specific events of the past, thanks to excellent, objective reportage.

As I follow events in Sri Lanka (for work purposes) I also get to learn about the country's ever-evolving political and social fabric, and much of what I read in the book clearly corroborated the trends that I had been observing personally as a zeitgeist, starting from the time of my visit. While the political economy of Sri Lanka continues to hurt the potential of the country in bad ways, the social dynamics have changed towards the demand for political rehabilitation from Sri Lankan Tamils. Sirisena's election saw nearly the entire cross section of Sri Lanka's politics come together on a platform - Sinhala chauvinists, Tamil separatists, Buddhist fundamentalists and even Muslim groups. This clearly showed the yearning for two things - moving on in the country with a final settlement of disparities and distrust; and also tackling cronyism and corruption within the existing government so that economic growth benefits everyone. Ms Sundarji's talks with a cross-section of society shows the common aspirations that unite into a voice of change across ethnicities and religious groupings. Sri Lanka is seen as a country of two monoliths by lazy journalists and fashionista intellectualists across the world, and even in India (a theory I personally have since junked), and the author does well to highlight these differences through her anecdotes. Justice Vigneswaran's election as Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council is a watershed in Sri Lankan politics, and the sections dealing with that are a prime example of objective reporting. Contrast that with the foolish rhetoric our media undertook with 2014 general elections, and you seethe infantile, facetious, half-hearted and often sloppywork of our so-called eminent journalists. While the book does not explore all the ethnic groupings of Sri Lanka and their understandings due to strict adherence to the theme, it does capture the contradictions that Sri Lanka, much like India, possesses within itself. For instance, her talk with Tamil speaking Muslims of Batticaloa or her chat with Jaffna's Tamil Buddhist Society head are a fascinating insight as to just how complex the country is.

Padma Rao Sunfarji discusses in depth the atrocities committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and meets surrendered senior leaders, many of whom were coopted into the government. While many people had problems with this strategy of Rajapakse, these people's voices were also given a chance to ponder and talk about what really went on within the LTTE. Most people now want a solution within the homeland, and the current government would be wise if it can pay attention to what these voices are saying, which seem to mirror much of the ordinary people on the ground say during her repeated visits to the island nation. Another great section of her book is the story on the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadre by the Sri Lankan Army. Like any South Asian army, the standing force in many areas have to deal with a lot of civilian engagement, and Ms Sundarji's reportage captures that wonderfully. Particularly memorable is the repeated emphasis of people on how difficult the former cadre find to integrate into society, subject as they are to discrimination in the time of peace. Many of the contested claims shoddily thrown around in international media also are debunked with statistics in various rounds of meetings by the Army personnel of importance, and even civilian voices are given their fair share to rail against the armed forces, which is not the case with war weary people. The politically aware Tamil people saw development which was denied to them for long under Mahinda Rajapakse, though cronyism also prevailed. The book also highlights in some depth the problem foreign interlocutors posed during the three decade civil war. Without losing objectivity, Ms Sundarji managed to bring to light just how destructive the LTTE, aid workers and the interlocutors proved to be hindrances to peace and development, and overstated the strength of the LTTE to the world, giving an incorrect picture all the time.

I strongly recommend this book to contemporary history afficionados and those interested in understanding current developments in Sri Lanka. Like the author, I also hope that the country, now seeing rapid development and also economic pains, sees lasting peace. The threats still linger; however, ground realities have changed drastically, something the Tamil diaspora across the world also needs to accept. It is a great weekend read thanks to its crisp writing. Please do give this book a chance amidst other 'objective, unbiased' reportage on Sri Lanka floating around these days.


Thrilled to read this. Thank you !
Thank you Padma ji. Humbled by your praise.

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