A Struggle for the Soul of Sri Lanka Fall 2017

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FALL 2017

A STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF SRI LANKA With democracy under stress around the globe, can this teardrop of an island stand up against the world-wide monsoon of nationalism? A DEPTH REPORT BY THE MEEK SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND NEW MEDIA AT

THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI A struggle for the soul of sri lanka



Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Ole Miss in Sri Lanka rEPORTERS/PHOTOGRAPHERS Ariel Cobbert Marlee Crawford Lana Ferguson William H. Kelly III Marisa Morrissette Baylee Mozjesik Ethel Mwedziwendira Ariyl Onstott Slade Rand MacKenzie Ross Savannah Smith

EDITOR Bill Rose


PUBLICATION DESIGNERS Marisa Morrissette Ethel Mwedziwendira MacKenzie Ross

ADVISORS Will Norton Jr. Bill Rose Ji Hoon Heo

WEB DESIGNERS Marisa Morrissette Ethel Mwedziwendira MacKenzie Ross

COPY EDITOR Greg Stepanich

COVER PHOTO: A young man’s eyes peer hauntingly from behind his red mask during the Perahera procession through downtown Kandy. TRAIN PHOTO: Peeking out at a changing world. Photos by: Ariel Cobbert


A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Table of CONTENTS The Hard Road to Healing


Inside the Temple of the Tooth


The Gentle Man


The Crusader


Tourists to the Rescue


Woman Power


One Big Teapot


Coming Together


Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen


Tears of Joy



Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans are never far from the ocean. Photo by Ariel Cobbert

“The Children Still Scream In The Night.”


Land of the Wild


They Can Never Forget


Replanting His Roots


A Tale Of Trials


The Garden of Eden


The Debt Trap


At the Mercy of the Wind


The Asian Pipeline


The Time Fortress


Strange New World


Try It. You’ll like it.


A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Verdant tea plantations cling to the hillsides in lush valleys of Nuwara Eliya. Photo by Ji Hoon Heo


Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

The Hard Road to Healing Can Sri Lanka cure its civil war hangover? Story by Lana Ferguson


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 selfdestructive 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

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


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


Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

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

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.

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

Photo by Marlee Crawford

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. A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Tourists who’ve never seen an elephant outside of a zoo tentatively rub their hands along its coarse, hairy, weathered skin. Photo by Marlee Crawford

THE ATTRACTION 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 10 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

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.

THE RELIGION 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?

Spectators pack Kandy’s streets to revel in this ancient Buddhist festival. Photo by Baylee Mozjesik

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


THE WEATHER 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 teardropshaped 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.

These massive ramparts protected the city from the deadly tsunami of 2004. Photo by Marlee Crawford

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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. Photo by William H. Kelly III

THE PEOPLE 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 nonprofit 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. A struggle for the soul of sri lanka 13

The Gentle Man Speaker Karu Jayasuriya tries to heal old wounds and reign in a brawling Parliament.


n an island divided, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya keeps watch over a raucous Parliament house that has erupted into fistfights, a place with a stubborn and minority opposition that makes it hard to get anything done. Through it all, he maintains a gentle, soft-spoken disposition. If that seems unusual, consider that in 1997, when Jayasuriya ran for mayor of Colombo, the experts thought he was crazy. For one thing, in Sri Lanka’s superheated political climate, candidates’ faces typically smile down from countless gigantic billboards and wall posters. It is hard to drive through cities and not see them at every turn. Jayasuriya ran his first campaign “without posters, banners, cutouts or polythene.” “We had two posters. Those were my first and only posters,” he said. Even his campaign manager thought he was crazy. Until he won. Colombo had never seen a campaign like it. He got 250,000 votes, obliterating the other candidates. Jayasuriya said his billboard ban helped separate him from the crowd and establish him as the fresh face his party was looking for. Another Jayasuriyan surprise was just ahead. After only 20 months in office, he won a parliamentary election in 2000 and was appointed minister of power and energy in 2001. He immediately started offering jobs to people from the opposition, creating a bipartisan administration in a land where party is everything. Still full of surprises, he is now the powerful speaker of the island’s eighth Parliament, something he’ll tell you he couldn’t have predicted 30 years ago. Now the welcoming, comforting, grandfatherly politician – he’s 77 – presides over a volatile assembly known for unruly debates and brawls, a place where progress is tough because in the current coalition government, the country’s previous president, an autocratic ruler, leads a loud minority that would love to reclaim power.

14 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Story by Slade Rand

In the midst of the island’s stormy politics, Karu Jayasuriya looked forward to celebrating 70 years of Sri Lankan democracy in October. Some would call it democracy with an asterisk, because the previous administration of autocratic President Mahinda Rajapaksa was often accused of corruption, nepotism, torture, bullying his critics, “disappearing” his foes and other human rights violations. The reform government of President Maithripala Sirisena took over in 2015 vowing transparency, a rooting out of government corruption, economic reforms and an investigation into alleged war crimes by the military during a long and brutal civil war that Rajapaksa’s military ended. But progress has been tough. Some promised reforms have been delayed and government spending is restrained by the need to commit 95 percent of state revenues to pay off debt to the likes of China and the World Bank. Significantly, a promise to the United Nations to let outside judges examine alleged war crimes and help mete out justice has been delayed past a U.N. deadline. The U.N. granted two more years, but Sinhalese who make up the majority of the population have been loath to reopen those old wounds. Facing public opposition, the government has shown no taste for letting judges from outside the island scrutinize wartime crimes. Coalition politics, it turns out, is perilously difficult. And Jayasuriya is the man on the legislative firing line. Jayasuriya caught the public service bug in the country’s military and it has never left him. He got there unconventionally, with never a whiff of corruption and without throwing any punches along the way. He first became a member of Parliament in 2000, elected from the Gampaha District, hoping to give a new face to the United National Party and put a stop to entrenched corruption. The civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils was nearly 20 years old and Jayasuriya had just finished a year and a half as mayor of Colombo. Sri Lankans were divided,

Karu Jayasuriya caught the public service bug in the country’s military and it has never left him. Photo by Marlee Crawford

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


distrustful of their government and their neighbors. Then, after the eighth Parliament of Sri Lanka was gaveled into order in September 2015, the members elected Jayasuriya as speaker. “We have very ambitious plans for the future. And of course, corruption is there in every country, and now at least in Sri Lanka it’s everything getting exposed,” Jayasuriya said. Karu Jayasuriya never thought he’d be a politician. His public service began when he joined the Ceylon Volunteer Force in 1962 after an attempted military coup. His company tracked and captured smugglers in the north, a heavily Tamil region, for nearly 10 years. It taught him, he said, the value of discipline. In 1971 Jayasuriya married a woman who didn’t want him to stay in the military, so he plunged headlong into the business world and was an instant success. He started with the huge Danish-owned Ceylon Trading Co. and quickly moved up to export manager, dealing in tea, rubber and coconuts. When Ceylon Trading acquired exporter C.W. Mackie, Karu became Mackie’s chairman. He traveled constantly to Russia to negotiate rubber contracts, expanded into sugar trading and led Mackie to become the largest rubber exporter in Sri Lanka and one of

the largest suppliers of cocoa to American candy giant Mars Inc. It was an auspicious start to a career that would see him become chairman or director of 50 corporations, including the chairmanship of Bank of Ceylon subsidiaries Merchant Bank and Merchant Credit. He seemed to have a sort of Midas touch. And the politicians noticed. “I have no political aspirations,” Jayasuriya insisted. “I never pried, I never wanted to join the party.” But leaders of the United National Party (UNP) picked up on the potential of his outsider approach and slowly pulled him into the political fold. Over the next decade, Jayasuriya and Sri Lanka’s second president, J.R. Jayewardene, hatched ideas that helped the government jumpstart the economy. Jayasuriya helped craft the nation’s successful free trade zones and pulled off revolutionary joint ventures between the private sector and the government. Once, Jayewardene asked him to save a failing venture with Korea. Korea Ceylon Footwear was on the brink of closure. Its stock price had plummeted to 2 rupees a share. He took the helm, reorganized the company and motivated employees. Within two years the stock

Sri Lanka’s parliament is located on a man-made island in the middle of Colombo, which helps keep it secure.

16 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Photo by Marlee Crawford

was selling for 280 rupees a share. Korea Ceylon Footwear became the largest footwear exporter in Sri Lanka. As Jayewardene grew more powerful, Jayasuriya became more important to the government’s inner workings. The president would frequently call him in for brainstorming sessions at the unlikely hour of 4 or 5 a.m. to map out policy. “When he was coming up, I was also dragged, from behind the scenes, into the policy decisions,” Jayasuriya said. “He was very keen to bring me into politics.” One of those early mornings, the prime minister tasked Jayasuriya to create the country’s first special trade exhibition. He wanted to make a splash that would lure business back to war-torn Sri Lanka. Jayasuriya was urged to get 1,001 people to show up, in order to beat the 1,000-person turnout for the South Korean president’s glitzy inaugural exhibition. He succeeded. Expo ’92 became Sri Lanka’s largest-ever international trade fair with more than 5,600 in attendance. It did wonders for the island’s confidence and the business community’s ambition. A few years later, the slumping economy was badly in need of a boost thanks to a terror campaign of assassinations by the MarxistLeninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna ( JVP), or People’s Liberation Front. New President Ranasinghe Premadasa got the International Monetary Fund to commit to a crucial loan but the IMF required the island to privatize its government-owned businesses before it would release the money. The president turned to Jayasuriya. His task: Privatize (they called it “peopleasation”) United Motors, a major Sri Lankan automotive distributor. Jayasuriya got it done, but it almost got him killed. Trade unions opposed the deal. And 14 young terrorists showed up at his house 48 hours before privatization, demanding he come with them, one day after the assassination of a vice chancellor. He talked and talked, reasoned and reasoned with them about the merits of privatization until they finally left. But they vowed to kill him if he did not resign the next day. “My eldest daughter was 13 at the time, other one was 11, and I didn’t want to take a chance,” Jayasuriya said. “So the next 48 hours I did the privatization. IMF was to give us some 2 billion or 2-and-a-halfbillion stand-by package. Money came in 72 hours. Immediately I took my children and went to England.” He decided government wasn’t worth it. But government didn’t give up on Jayasuriya that easily. Premadasa made Jayasuriya ambassador to Germany. He sold him on the job by explaining that he would be able to build up the UNP’s international relations while still keeping his family safe in London. He stayed in Germany for less than two years, returning home shortly before Premadasa himself was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebel army from the northern part of Sri Lanka. “When I came back from serving as ambassador, he was looking

for a new face so he invited me to come into politics. I was reluctant, but again, a lot of pressure. I joined him and I was offered the party chairmanship,” Jayasuriya said. As chairman, he hit the ground running. This led to his unprecedented victory in the Colombo mayoral elections and eventually his rise through Parliament. “I believe in something called destiny you know, and I look at it as my national duty,” he said. Over the years, Jayasuriya has used his gentlemanly ways and business savvy to steer his country and his party through a turbulent political sea, stirred up by both internal battles and international interventions. As the civil war wound down, tensions between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese remained taut and the United Nations stepped up its scrutiny of human rights. Even in this impossible political environment, Jayasuriya held fast and fought for his country’s survival. He knew he would need help from the press, but said it was both an asset and a handicap in trying to heal the wounds of war. He had crafted the Right to Information Act in 2002, during a massive governmental regime change. In 2015, voters shocked political experts by throwing out the authoritarian Rajapaksa and installing the reform-minded Sirisena. The Information Act, which gives citizens the right to any data owned by the government or a public authority, took years of debate and tweaking. It was finally implemented in February. “In this country, the press freedom is almost there,” Jayasuriya said. “Our problem is that sometimes it has been abused. In some cases, but not all.” The speaker places some blame for the country’s divisions on the media and outspoken politicians. He said Sri Lankans’ ethnic divisions are not nearly as intense as television commentators make them seem. He points to local cricket teams, where Sinhalese and Tamils play alongside each other with no sign of animosity. “Buddhism and Hinduism, both with warm thoughts about human love, human affection,” he said. “It is really the politicians who created all this extremism.” Jayasuriya led his party and his country through an evolution, and is still working to balance the myriad of interests at play at every level of change, especially when it comes to building up the economy. “It’s not easy because there are trade unions, political trade unions, and we have too many holidays,” Jayasuriya said. “Every full moon day is a holiday … It’s not easy to change. If you try to change, you get thrown out from the government.” He’s stayed in office for nearly 20 years now, so he must be doing something right. Now he can sit back and admire what he’s brought to his home country and craft how it all works in the grand scheme of things. “Now I am coming to the tail end of my career, the last few hours you see, the last inning,” Jayasuriya said. “But unfortunately, you never get the time to do that in the moment.”

“I believe in something called destiny you know, and I look at it as my national duty.”

- Karu Jayasuriya

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Tourists To The Rescue White sand beaches, wildlife safaris, tropical rain forests, ornate temples. Welcome to the latest Asian hot spot.

Story by Slade Rand


manuel Adikaram likes to meet people; it warms his heart. The 43-year-old runs the concierge desk at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, where he started as a bellboy a year ago, and who will soon graduate from Sri Lanka’s hotel service school. “One customer happy, a thousand customers come to us,” Adikaram said with a smile. And come they have. Over the last six years, the island has recorded a 300 percent increase in visitors. As nearly 30 years of violence and religious conflict died down in 2009, the country’s tourism numbers spiked. Now, more American travelers flood the country than ever before, arriving into welcoming arms. “Tourism never died here,” said Hiran Cooray, chairman of Sri Lanka’s Jetwing Hotels chain. “One of the reasons for that is the people here.” Sri Lankans embrace visitors. They’ll pour you some tea, tell you a story. Sri Lanka has a colorful and raucous culture that its people want nothing more than to share.

18 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

In history-laden Galle Fort on the coast, families live next door to one another in homes built by the Dutch and British, like they have done for seven or eight generations. Kandy in the central highlands is home to Esala Perahera, a 300-year-old Buddhist festival highlighted by a gaudy, drum-driven, three-hour parade celebrating the Buddha’s lost tooth, protected from prying eyes in the city’s renowned Temple of the Tooth. The highlands are also home to Adam’s Peak, a 7,000-foot conical mountain with an oversized footprint in a boulder at the top. Some Christians consider Sri Lanka to have been the site of the Garden of Eden and the footprint to have been left by Adam when he was forced from paradise. Buddhists call it the footprint of Buddha. Hindus say it is the footprint of the Shiva. In a sense, the mount and its footprint has become Asia’s version of Jerusalem, a holy place worshipped by different faiths for different reasons. “Most people don’t know what’s in Sri Lanka,” Kandy native Ravindra Kumara Herath said during the Esala Perahera festival. “Sri Lanka is a small universe.” A small but deeply flavorful universe. The young nation is

Over the last six years, the island has recorded a 300 percent increase in visitors. Photo by Marisa Morrissette

enjoying its new place atop lists of international vacation spots, with new hotels and villas opening their doors every day. Cooray’s late father, Herbert, founded the nowdominant tourism organization Jetwing 40 years ago, in what Cooray describes as the golden age of Sri Lanka tourism. Before the civil war, Sri Lankan tourism was on a constant rise. The year 1982 saw unprecedented growth with more than 400,000 visitors, but the war between rebel Tamils and Sinhalese that broke out in 1983 kept those numbers from climbing. Fighting lasted for 26 years. But before it stopped, a tsunami struck the island in 2004 and killed 35,000 people. Out of the industry’s dark and stagnant realities, Herbert Cooray helped his nation become the tourism powerhouse it is today. In 2012, the island recorded more than 1 million tourist visitors for the first time in its history, surpassing the targeted 950,000 visits. Tourists visiting Sri Lanka come hoping for a bright and historic country, brushing off the threats from nature or terrorist groups. Maya Steinberg, from Israel, traveled

to Kandy in August for the Esala Perahera with her two children. When you travel, you don’t see the politics, she said. “We didn’t expect the people to be so nice, so polite,” Steinberg said. “It’s very clean and organized. I thought it would be more dirty.” A block down the Perahera parade route, 18-year-old Emma Palà and her family waited for the festival to begin. The Spanish trio echoed Steinberg’s infatuation with the vibrant locals. Palà said it all looked like a film. “They are a narrative people,” Palà said. One Galle Fort man, 64-year-old Fazal Badurdeen, makes a living off of his narrative ability. Seven generations of Badurdeen’s family have lived in Galle Fort, where he tells stories at the Royal Dutch Café, which he owns. He sits on the front porch, clutching a teacup. When he gets into a story, a stern look in his eyes tells you he can still see the streets as they were when he was a child. Badurdeen’s wife and daughters run a souvenir shop in the back, which he said was not there 30 years ago. A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


One Galle Fort man, 64-year-old Fazal Badurdeen, makes a living off telling stories.

“People got smart to do business here,” he said. Badurdeen said that 30 years ago, Galle Fort’s streets were home to old people reading newspapers instead of tourists picking through jewelry shops and hailing tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled taxis. It used to be quieter. He’s lived through the tourism boom and has seen the foreign traffic’s good and bad. To him, it’s mainly good. “I am very happy,” Badurdeen said. “Mostly about 99 percent of foreigners are happy.” Cooray said just as the number of yearly tourists has changed over the last 30 years, so has the type of tourist. “Today’s traveler is more savvy than 30 years ago,” Cooray said. “Nowadays people will try the local curries. They also might learn a few new things. Sometimes they might learn some bad habits, too.” He thinks visitors sharing in a little bit of Sri Lankan culture can help everyone involved. When his father founded the business in 1970, Cooray said he established a standard for high-quality hospitality across the nation. He said his father’s belief in honesty still drives the company today. Since stepping in as chairman, Cooray has used the company to bridge his need to uphold the family business to a passion to help rehabilitate his country. He said in areas where life is still getting back to normal, he opens doors for those in poverty who need 20 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Photos by Marlee Crawford

it. Jetwing was one of the first companies to operate hotels in the ravaged north after the civil war, and Cooray said they have hired six former terrorists as a form of redemption. “Wherever we go and open a hotel we have to make sure the local community benefits,” Cooray said. “We go as strangers to that community.” Tourism has helped Sri Lanka recover both economically and socially since the government ruthlessly ended the conflict in 2009 by nearly annihilating the last remnants of the once-feared insurgent force known as the Tamil Tigers. Cooray said the industry is almost 90 percent owned by the private sector, and it has been the responsibility of individual businesses and CEOs to steer the ship in a positive direction. Without political disruption, Cooray said he’s been able to hold onto the same standard of business his father founded Jetwing to provide. “We’ve had absolutely no political pressure. We thought, ‘We’ll just ride the wave,’” he said. Riding the wave alongside Cooray and his network are local businesses that have expanded with the boom in tourism. Madawa Marasinghe has worked with Kadugannawa Tea for 24 years and now serves as manager of the Kadugannawa Factory and Promotion Centre. He said between 500 and 600 tourists visit both of the company’s factories each day, coming to see the tea process.

Tourism thrives in Sri Lanka because its people know that empathy is what drives travel.

“We are promoting the tourism,” Marasinghe said. “If they are promoting Sri Lanka, they are promoting tea and our elephant orphanages.” Cooray said tourism is a unique industry because success at the top almost guarantees success for employees working day to day. If more tourists come, more Sri Lankans will get jobs working in the field. Some locals are drawn to the hospitality business because they know it means they will meet new visitors every day, and maybe hear a new story. Twenty-two-year-old Dinesh Selladhurai has worked as a bellboy at the Grand Hotel outside of Kandy for almost five years. He said he started there because the industry had few job

requirements and lots of on-the-ground training. “It’s good because really Sri Lanka is all tourism,” Selladhurai said. “I’m very happy to be seeing tourists.” As travelers from across Asia and elsewhere pour into Sri Lanka, the local people are discovering more ways to benefit from the rampant cross-cultural connection. The more chances they have to sell a souvenir, explain their life story or share what makes them happy, the quicker Sri Lanka will return to its pre-war golden era. Tourism thrives in Sri Lanka because its people know that empathy is what drives travel. “Mostly the thing is the friendship,” said Herath, the Kandy native watching the Esala Perahera parade. “That is a special thing.” A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Madawa Marasinghe, a tea factory manager, says Tamils were brought in to work in the tea plantations because the Sinhalese refused that kind of labor. Photo by William H. Kelly III


This is an island built upon tea. And proud of it.


angles around her ankle tinkle as she bustles about. Chairs scrape the floor as they are moved to add space. Warm, lilting tones fill the air. Pungent odors of freshly brewed tea leaves drizzled with honey waft around the room. She pours tea for a guest, greeting him in Chinese. She sashays to another group, smooths her sari and sits, introducing herself in English: I am Malki Perera, your tour guide. Welcome to the Kadugannawa Tea Factory. The Kadugannawa Tea Factory is just one out of nearly 2,000 tea factories, plantations, and estates within Sri Lanka. Employing more than 1 million people, comprising the island’s top export commodity, and steeped in history, tea has become the lifeblood of this ancient land. Peculiar as it may seem, the story of world-

22 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Story by Ariyl Onstott

famous “Ceylon Tea” begins with coffee. It starts in the early 1820s, just after the surrender of Kandy (the island’s last surviving indigenously ruled state) to the British Crown. Though the island, then known as Ceylon, was considered crucial to imperial interests in India and the Far East, the cost of military and infrastructure upkeep was exorbitant. The British had to find a way to make the colony pay for itself. As luck would have it, the colonial governor spotted coffee plants growing naturally in the hill country. Opportunity was born. By the mid-1870s, coffee was king. Ceylon catapulted into the world’s largest coffee producer. The bean transformed the colony into an imperial showpiece, and the island into a modern industrial center. Overnight, it seemed, railways threaded coffee-clad

hillsides, and networks of roads connected the interior. But the beverage’s reign was to be shortlived. Coffee rust, a new disease, showed up in 1879 and took just over a decade to demolish Ceylon’s entire coffee enterprise. The economy crumbled. Besides frequent runs on banks in Colombo, roughly 1,700 coffee planters threw up their hands and left for England. Plantations “up-country” sold for pennies. Meanwhile, reclusive Scots planter James Taylor was experimenting with a new plant, sowing it along the margins of his coffee estate, Loolecondera. When the coffee blight hit, Taylor had already shipped his first modest delivery – 23 pounds – of tea to England. Soon, planters from around the region were visiting Loolecondera to learn how to produce tea.

Sri Lanka’s top export commodity

2,000 Tea factories, Plantations And estates

2% of the island’s GDP

1 million people employed

Sources: World Bank, CIA World Factbook, Sri Lankan government, tea industry

The transformation was arduous. More than 300,000 acres had to be stripped of coffee bushes and replanted in tea. But by 1890, Ceylon had become an island synonymous with tea, a colonial jewel glittering once again. However, colonial oversight is seldom without far-reaching consequences. In need of cheap labor for the burgeoning tea plantations, the East India Company brought more Indian Tamils to the country, increasing the number originally brought to work the coffee plantations. As part of their traditional “divide and conquer” strategy, the British disproportionately employed the native and foreign Tamil minority, much to the frustration of the Sinhalese majority, as the Tamils rose through tea plantation ranks to become supervisors, managers, and even owners. The wounds from this display of colonial favoritism have never quite healed. To this day, Sri Lankan social tensions claim their roots in the British exclusion of the Sinhalese. “I am Sinhalese. We can’t work as a Tamil,” Kadugannawa Factory manager Madawa Marasinghe said. He explained that in the beginning, Sinhalese didn’t like to work the tea plantations, leading the British to import Indian-origin Tamils. Now, Tamils are the best workers, with an innate knowledge of the tea process, he suggested.

Renowned worldwide, tea production in Sri Lanka is perfectly primed because of the island’s nearly flawless climate, balancing tropical warmth with hilly coolness, lushly fertile soil, and varying altitudes. Because Sri Lanka’s checkered monsoon seasons soak the eastern half of the island from January to May and the western half from July to October, dropping as much as 45 to 70 inches of rain annually and sometimes much more, tea can be harvested year-round. Tea leaves grow so fast that some plantations must pluck fresh leaves nearly every week. The higher the altitude, the bolder the flavor of the tea. Sprawling tea gardens and plantations cover the landscape of Sri Lanka’s hill country. Short bushes cling to the hills, their tea leaves pointed upward in an eternal search for sunlight. Low-grown teas are produced at elevations below 2,000 feet, like in Galle to the southeast. Mid- or medium-grown teas are grown between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, such as those within Sri Lanka’s ancient hill capital, Kandy. And high-grown teas are grown between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. The misty hills of Nuwara Eliya are one of the highest and oldest tea-growing regions, producing the dark, flavorful Ceylon teas Sri Lanka is famous for. Equally crucial is the manufacturing process. The Kadugannawa Tea Factory is

World’s third largest producer in volume World’s second largest producer in value terms Graphic by MacKenzie Ross

relatively young – just five years old – unlike its main 114-year-old counterpart in Geragama. Nestled outside Kandy, these factories take hand-plucked leaves from many gardens and plantations. First, the tea leaves must be withered. Damith Dananjaya, 23, ushers a tour group into a spacious room. The whooshing hum of large fans threatens the moisture in the leaves and drowns Dananjaya’s voice. In 20 hours, nearly a full day, the leaves will almost completely dehydrate, he explains. While 1,450 kilograms (about 3,190 pounds) of tea leaves curl up on the long counters, only one-half that weight will be left, he says. Withered leaves move to machines for the second stage: rolling. Twenty minutes of pressure rolling breaks the leaves down to be sifted. Quickly, workers push them down the vibrating sifter belt. The pieces are re-rolled until they reach the desired size. Leaf and stem particles are separated in another manual machine. Then it is time for the heart of the tea-making process: fermentation. A wood furnace further dries the leaves, causing them to lose all moisture. Unlike black tea, golden and Ceylon teas are much more delicate. They are only dried via sunlight, and only part of their leaves are used in the teamaking process. This results in a much rarer, more expensive type of tea. A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Women on the plantations often comprise 75 to 85 percent of the industry’s workforce.

A fancy Japanese machine (one of the very few machines in the factory not operated by hand) further separates leaf pieces not just according to size, but to color in tea-making’s final stage. This allows the factory to more specifically organize the various tea flavors. By the end of the day, the Kadugannawa Tea Factory will produce 1,000-2,000 kilograms of black tea, while only 20-25 kilograms of golden and Ceylon teas are produced per month. What’s Dananjaya’s favorite tea? He casts an awkward glance downward. “I don’t like tea,” he admits sheepishly. “It’s difficult.” A trip to any upscale hotel within the region will be marked with pictures of smiling plantation women, their fingers eagerly

Photos by Ariel Cobbert

entwining leaves of tea. Vestiges of a colonial past beckon to tourists even from the walls of the tea factory as dapper Englishmen are served tea by beaming factory workers. The reality of tea does not always leave a pleasant taste in the mouth. While Sri Lanka’s orthodox tea system can account for its quality – hand-plucked leaves and manual machines – it comes at a cost. Despite snakes, steep inclines, and other hazards, women and other young workers on the plantations must pick at least 16 kilograms (about 35 pounds) of tea every day. The wages? Just 7 rupees per kilo in Nuwara Eliya – or about 4 cents. Just a 1-kilo bag of rice from the supermarket costs about 115 rupees, taking up nearly a day’s wages.

Women on the plantations often comprise 75 to 85 percent of the industry’s workforce, yet they face a controlled social hierarchy that leaves them virtually powerless as the bottom of the social strata. Dananjaya mentions that at Kadugannawa’s sister factory, Geragama, a woman broke her hand in the machines. Though he says this doesn’t happen often, he readily discloses that the machines are very dangerous – chiefly because they require manual operation. “That’s why we use the special, experienced workers for the machines,” Marasinghe explains. The manager of both tea factories says that beginners are sent to do small jobs – not operating equipment – to eliminate injuries. When asked if workers get hurt, Marasinghe

James Taylor begins experiments on growing tea on roadsides on his coffee plantation

James Taylor exports first Ceylon tea – 23 pounds

Tea production 151 million pounds

Sri lanka becomes world’s largest tea exporter

Tea comprises just over 2 percent of the island’s GDP






Source: HistoryofCeylonTea.com

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Graphic by MacKenzie Ross

Sri Lanka is the world’s third-largest producer in volume behind Kenya and China, and the second-largest producer in terms of value.

shifts in his seat, looking away. “Yes,” he says. And trouble of another sort may be brewing. Sri Lanka Tea Board statistics reveal that production declined by 36 million kilograms, or 11 percent, last year compared to 2015. The same trend has held true for the last few years and looks to be the case this year as well. There are many factors driving the slump, including a persistent drought and aging tea bushes where big estates have not replanted enough. Meanwhile, global tea production is steadily increasing. Sri Lanka’s share in world tea production is now down to 6 percent from 10.5 percent in 2000, a cause for increasing industry concern. Despite these challenges, tea remains Sri Lanka’s lifeblood. “Our culture depends on the tea,” Marasinghe says. Twenty-four years in the

tea industry is what gave Marasinghe a leg up, allowing him to become the manager of two factories. Besides the social divisions that are often reinforced by the industry, Sri Lanka’s society revolves around tea: buying it, selling it, marketing it. Tea comprises just over 2 percent of the island’s GDP. Though roughly the size of Indiana, Sri Lanka is the world’s third-largest producer in volume behind Kenya and China, and the second-largest producer in terms of value. Tea also has a beneficial effect on Sri Lanka’s tourism, with factories advertising their tours to tour companies, luring visitors from around the world to the island. To remain competitive, many factories are creating promotional centers to teach tourists about the tea process. For Sri Lanka, tea now fosters an exchange

of ideas, people, and cultures. According to Marasinghe, more than 500 to 600 tourists visit the factory each day. Whether or not changing market conditions strongly affect Sri Lanka’s tea industry, one constant has always seemed unassailable: the international prestige of Ceylon tea. The bangles around her ankle chime once again. Malki Perera stands and pours tea for her English-speaking guests. The pungent odors of tea are dissipating. The lilting tones have begun to filter out the doors. At just 22, she already speaks four languages – languages she has learned since 2014 through her job as a tour guide. She is proud of this achievement. “… I have learned something from here, you know. It’s not like a job,” she says, smiling. “This place is like a home. These people are like my sisters, my brothers. It’s like a family.” A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


A bejeweled elephant takes part in front of the Temple of the Tooth during their annual festival, Esala Perahera.

Photo by Savannah Smith 26 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

LIKE NOTHING YOU’VE EVER SEEN Elephants, dancers, acrobats, bands, flaming sticks, drums. And a replica of the Buddha’s tooth.

Story by Slade Rand 27

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka

Tourists love it, but the Perahera is meant for Sri Lanka.


ore than 100 elephants lumber down the street as red-clad, bare-chested dancers twirl flaming sticks and toss batons. The drums never let up and marching bands shout through their horns all night long, on display for Buddhists who travel hours on jammed mountain roads to sit 10 deep along the sidewalk. To catch a glimpse of the annual Esala Perahera, you’d better get there early. The thousands who clog the streets of this ancient kingdom are here for one of the biggest religious parades in Asia, all in honor of the Buddha’s tooth. The tooth is said to be housed in Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, perched on the shore of a small lake at the start of the parade route. The tooth’s ornate sealed box makes its annual three-hour procession through the streets on the back of one of the parade’s bejeweled elephants. The tooth is not in the box. Too sacred, too fragile, too valuable to risk. It remains in the temple where few are allowed to ogle it. Walking the streets of Kandy as the sun disappears behind surrounding mountains, it only takes a little while to see that for Buddhists, this is more than a religious event. The 10-day festival and parades celebrate Sri Lanka’s culture and offer its people a sacred nostalgia.

28 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Photos by Marlee Crawford

Tourists love it, but the Perahera is meant for Sri Lanka. It connects Buddhists with their history, and reminds young people of the religion’s legacy in their island nation. Ravindra Seneviratna lives in Kandy, but at 23 has seen the Esala Perahera only twice. At his second Perahera this year, he was all smiles with a video camera slung over his shoulder. Seneviratna milled among the 100 elephants and thousands of performers as they prepared to march, submerged in a cultural identity he said he had lost touch with. Before now, he said, he did not fully realize the celebration’s significance. “When I came and looked at it the first time, I had this feeling and emotion,” Seneviratna said. “Pride, amazement, excitement, nostalgia.” The parade has that effect. Children and their grandparents sit in appreciative awe; there’s something there connecting the overflowing crowds. Seneviratna said the parade reminds him of what it means to be a Buddhist, and of his country’s thick intertwinement with the religion. More than 70 percent of the countr y’s population is Buddhist, and it has been that way since the 3rd centur y B.C. for this, one of the world’s oldest Buddhist cultures.

All night long dancers, acrobats, fire twirlers and drumlines march through the streets under the Buddha’s protective gaze.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


The tooth’s ornate sealed box makes its annual three-hour procession through the streets on the back of one of the parade’s bejeweled elephants. Photo by Marlee Crawford

30 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

As more tourists flood the country each year for the festival, they may detract from its authentic feeling, but the locals have found a way to appreciate and welcome these foreign guests. Photo by Baylee Mozjesik

The mammoth golden Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha statue sits atop the highest point on the mountains encircling Kandy, all-seeing and visible from any spot in the city. At night, white lights bathe the impassive stone figure, constantly reasserting an impression of momentous and cosmic significance. All night long, elephants and drumlines march through streets under the Buddha’s protective gaze. Though established as a Buddhist celebration, the Perahera now unites the city’s religious minority with its age-old Buddhist population. Seneviratna said the last three groups to march their elephants through the streets come from local Hindu temples. One sits just around the corner from where marchers lined up. This raucous procession through jam-packed streets has united the city around a common reverence for a nation of deep culture. “This is what we have as Sri Lankans,” Seneviratna said. Seneviratna said the decorated men sitting atop the elephants as they make their way through Kandy have had that honor passed down to them through generations. The festival honors the remnants of a caste system that once ruled Kandy, one the community supports again once ever y year. “Even the dancers,” he said. “Only these dancers can dance; it comes from their family.” Seneviratna expressed what most Buddhist spectators feel. Esala Perahera is an essential part of keeping their culture alive in a rapidly modernizing world. As more tourists flood the countr y each year for the festival, they may detract from its authentic feeling, but the locals have found a way to appreciate and welcome these foreign guests. “If they know about our countr y, they can study our language, our culture, our religion and ever ything,” Ravindra Kumara Herath said. Herath hopes tourists respect their celebration, but also

take a little bit of the countr y home with them. Dieuwertje van der Hulst came to the festival from the Netherlands. On impulse, she bought plane tickets two days before the flight was scheduled to leave. She just had to see the Perahera. “We’re looking for seats among the locals,” she said, around an hour before parade time. That’s a tough ticket. Space on the ground is hard to come by even hours beforehand, and cheap plastic chairs on balconies go for almost $100. Despite this commercialization of the festival, locals still hold it dear. It seems nothing, from war to tsunami to a world turned hateful, can distract these Buddhists from what the festival means to them. It is, after all, a matter of faith. “I don’t have words to describe it; you don’t get numb of it,” Herath said.

Illustration by MacKenzie Ross

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


The 10-day festival and parades celebrate Sri Lanka’s culture and offer its people a sacred nostalgia.

32 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Photos by Ariel Cobbert

Vendors do a booming business during the 10-day Perahera Festival.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


A solitary worshipper deep in prayer, a common sight at the temple. Photos by Ariel Cobbert

Inside the Temple of the TootH One of the most revered sites in Buddhism, it is said to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth.

34 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Story by William H. Kelly III


undreds of people, many dressed in white, stand barefoot, shoulder to shoulder, eagerly awaiting a

blessing. They are crammed into the Temple of the Tooth, a lavishly decorated 16thcentury Buddhist sanctuary renowned throughout Asia and said to contain since antiquity a tooth from the Buddha himself. Colorful murals depict the Esala Perahera, Kandy’s elaborate annual 10-day pageant that celebrates various deities and the revered tooth itself, including the story of how the tooth arrived here in 1592. The Perahera has become one of the biggest, most colorful religious pageants in Asia, which accounts for the thousands who have packed this ancient city, many of whom are desperate to get inside the temple. The murals, echoes of Sri Lankan culture, reveal intricate patterns on both the clothing of the worshipers and the ornate drapes decorating elephants marching in the grand parades. Even now, dozens of elephants, very much alive, stand chained around the temple, as if to protect it from invaders. Inside, the ceiling is painted a light blue, like

water. In the “water” float numerous lotus flowers. In quiet reverence, worshippers hold a lotus flower, similar to the people shown in murals deeper within. In the Buddhist faith, lotus flowers represent the act of ascending above all desires and attachments, believed to be the key to achieving spiritual enlightenment. Inside, burning incense instantly overwhelms your senses. The ground floor houses an array of Buddha statues, many of which are gifts from other countries. There are many flights of stairs leading to a higher floor. Each floor holds large groups of people kneeling to meditate or standing in front of small shrines. On the highest level, in the main shrine, movement is extremely limited. Two lines lead to a room where monks accept offerings. Behind them is a small opening. Through the opening loom rows of elephant tusks, arched like a gate. Beyond can be glimpsed a shiny golden case decorated with gems and pearls. This is the home of the ancient tooth relic of the Buddha. “Unless you are Buddhist, you cannot imagine the grounding, the calm, the

serenity I feel in that temple,” Ravindu Dhanapala said. An engineer in England, he has been to the temple many times. “I teach my sons our culture. But some things can best be felt. That is why I am here, to feel what I am and where I am from,” he said. The Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, regularly draws tourists and Buddhists from around the world. There is no admission fee for locals, but foreign tourists are asked to fork over a few bucks, and freelance guides offer their services around the sprawling temple complex for around 600 rupees (about $4). Free audio guides are available at the ticket office. An elevator is provided for travelers with disabilities. Visitors must wear clothes that cover legs and shoulders, and you must remove your shoes to enter. Even then, visitors must be careful to heed signs that warn against stepping into various areas. Inside are four to five small shrines where Buddhists can give thanks and meditate. Some hold glass cases with ancient books and scrolls such as the Pansiya Panas Jathaka Potha, a 1,600page collection of Buddhist tales written on ola leaves, a type of palm.

Sri Lankans flock to the temple to pay homage to the Buddha.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Entire families clad in white make the pilgrimage from every corner of this island nation.

Said to be hundreds of years old, the books are supposed to have been written by sages who inscribed horoscopes of people not yet born. Another shrine hides in a small rectangular room with a golden curtain designed with bo leaves. That same room holds a large glass case holding the golden Buddha, where donations are dropped off. During Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam set off a bomb at the temple in 1998, badly damaging it. It has since been restored, to the great delight of the people who flock here every year. It is easy to see that the moonstone at the Maha Vahalkada, or Great Gate, that marks the entrance to the temple is new. The original was destroyed in the bomb blast. Once, this was part of a sprawling 36 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

palace grounds when Kandy was its own kingdom. The main shrine of the temple is where the royal palace was located. A pavilion adjacent to the temple was used by Kandyan kings to hold court. In fact, the treaty that ended the sovereignty of the kingdom and ceded power to the British was signed here in 1815. An octagonal tower at one end of the temple houses a valuable library where a number of ancient ola-leaf manuscripts can be seen. And at the back of the temple grounds, visitors can see the Raja Tusker Museum, which contains the taxidermic remains of Raja, the massive elephant that carried the Tooth Relic casket during the Esala Perahera for 50 years until he died in 1988. Photos detailing the life of the popular pachyderm line the walls. You don’t have to look long at the

Photos by William H. Kelly III

enormous crowds who quietly make the pilgrimage to the temple before you realize how important this is to them. The people of Kandy consider themselves fortunate to live where the tooth and its temple reside. Wasana Kumari Abeykoon, 26, and Damith Dananjaya, 23, are workers at a tea factory in Kandy. They said residents go to the temple when they feel the need for a blessing. Sometimes, they go as part of birthday celebrations. “When we are staying there, we can feel very fresh,” Dananjaya said. Many leave offerings varying from nicely scented flowers to dishes such as rice, red rice and midi midi, a dish with rice and bananas, in hopes of enhancing blessings. In the newest shrine toward the back of the temple, photos and video recording are prohibited.

Dozens of elephants are housed in the Temple of the Tooth during the festival.

Large wall paintings tell how the Buddha statue and the sacred tooth got here after being smuggled out of India centuries ago, hidden in the hair of a princess. The pillars in the room are decorated with carved dragons breathing fire and golden elephant heads help support the ceiling. At the front of the room lies another vast shrine with a tall golden Buddha. A golden

case, similar to the other relic, sits in front of the Buddha statue as well as statues of golden elephants. The temple is the focus of the final day of the Esala Perahera, when an elaborate parade including extravagantly decorated elephants makes its way to the temple and surrounds it. A replica of the tooth is carried on an elephant while the real tooth remains in the temple.

Rather than attending every day during the festival, some Buddhists have specific days that are special to them and their culture. “I like to go to first day,” Abeykoon said. “People believe if you see the first festival, it’s good for us. Like, you get little bit more blessed like that.”

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Nimal Martinus Photo by Marlee Crawford

The Crusader How one man’s mission helped thousands escape poverty. Story by Baylee Mozjesik

38 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

nimal martinus: on the map NORWAY

Nepal Bangladesh Gambia



Kolkata, india

Sri Lanka Cali, Colombia

Illustration by MacKenzie Ross


s a young man, Nimal Martinus rose swiftly through the ranks at a prosperous tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s highlands, managing more than 1,000 workers as the big farm’s second in command. One day, as he supervised workers carrying bundles of delicate, freshly picked tea leaves, one of them dropped his precious load, a terrible error in the proud, quality-obsessed world of Ceylon tea production. Martinus quickly prodded him in the back with a stick, reprimanding the man for his mistake. In obvious distress, the man stared silently at his boss for a long time. Then he spoke words Martinus will never forget. “Do you treat me like this because I am poor?” Martinus stared back, speechless, appalled. That night, the words of the worker rattled around and around his brain

in an endless loop, tormenting him. After a sleepless night, he quit his job, vowing to do something that would help people. The workers’ words not only changed Martinus’ life, but subsequently the lives of thousands from South America to Southeast Asia. In the three decades since, he has taught bush people in Cali, Colombia, how to use radio transmissions to pressure the government for help; worked to eradicate prostitution and opiate addiction in India’s Golden Triangle; helped remote villages in The Gambia create their own television station to draw media attention to their problems; and helped reduce school dropouts and human trafficking in Bangladesh and Nepal. He helped small, destitute tea farmers in Sri Lanka escape poverty by processing and selling their own tea, skirting the middlemen who usually consumed the profits.

Now, instead of chasing the good life, he was changing the lives of the poor, showing them how to take things into their own hands and build a better future for themselves and their children. But it didn’t happen overnight. And it was never easy. After resigning his plum plantation job, Martinus went to India to study sociology and management. He wanted to learn how to teach people to alter their own lives and pull themselves out of poverty. He traveled the world trying to understand issues related to poverty and developed a loose but effective system to mobilize and transform villages. “We create participatory methodologies,” Martinus said. “For me, development is nothing but getting people to think consciously, critically, so that they will be able to find solutions rather than waiting for outside advice.”

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Martinus’ deceptively simple self-help philosophy is based largely on the belief that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to poverty. It varies according to the circumstances people face. He has pursued his crusade by himself as well as with groups such as the World Bank, the Strømme Foundation, Save the Children, Worldview International, the United Nations and UNESCO, always with one purpose: to help people in struggling communities identify weaknesses and strengths and come up with their own personalized solutions that come from within. What he doesn’t do is what the vast majority of well-meaning foreign charities and foundations do — force solutions from his own culture on the locals. His secret: He spends no less than five, and as many as 10 years living in the communities he helps mobilize. “You have to learn by doing; there is no shortcut for that,” Martinus, 60, said. “You must first listen to people and understand how they live. Go to people, live with them, eat what they have, and start where you are.” 40 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

One of the first places Martinus put this theory to the test was in his home country of Sri Lanka, on the south coast where he was born. He decided to look at the challenges, problems and potential of impoverished fishing communities, which are notoriously isolated and unsophisticated. “I spent five to six years working with the fishermen, learning about them, going in the boats and canoes, throwing the nets, but also trying to understand their perceptions and how they perceive life,” Martinus said. “I think that was the biggest experience I ever had in my life, because there was so much poverty and misery and so many challenges.” By living alongside fishermen in Negombo, Martinus earned their trust. They had been poor so long that they had lost hope they could ever do better. Over time, he was able to pinpoint why they could not make any money. The main issue, he said, was a lack of educational motivation coupled with a societal distrust of banks. Martinus helped them create education programs for their youth as well

as a banking system run by the fishermen, for the fishermen. The banks handed out loans that helped the fishermen buy better equipment. “Changing their mindsets to become self-helpful was my mission. I wanted to show people that they have the capacity, the resources, but first they need to change the way that they think,” Martinus said. He was able to persuade the women of the village first. The men, many of whom spent their off hours in heavy drinking, were reluctant but jumped on board when they saw the women making money. “We were not united in the beginning,” says Paliyagataye Nilmini, one of the female village leaders from another town. “We were competing against each other for survival, but we realized that was a foolish thing. We realized as a small group we could help each other and come together as a powerhouse in the village.” Before they banded together, Martinus said, the fishermen were exploited by boat owners and unaware of their basic rights.

By pooling their resources, the women built a life that offers better hope to their children. Photo by William H. Kelly III

By coming together and pooling their resources, the community was able to conquer many of Negombo’s problems as well as improve the schooling of their children. They were also able to move past a big cultural barrier: getting this traditionally male-dominated society to accept women in leadership roles. “I started building self-confidence after meeting these women’s groups, listening with them, working with them. I realized that I have a future,” says P. Pigawathi Silva, another of the female village leaders. It is the same with the small tea farmers Martinus helped organize in and around Baduraliya, further south along the coast. There, you can see it in the eyes of the women, hear it in their voices. Flush with success, they are full of confidence, proud of what they have done, ready for whatever is next. After all, they have each other. Renuka Jayasingha, 47, recalled how organization helped her children. Their tiny school had only two teachers and five classes. “So our children could not get an education.” In the old days, they would have thrown

up their hands in helplessness. No more. “We had 90 members so we got together and went to the local education authorities. But they were reluctant. They would hide. They did not want to face us,” she said. The group knew just what to do. They organized a demonstration and paraded with signs in front of the officials’ offices. Here came the TV cameras. They got national media coverage. “Within one week we got seven teachers and now it is functioning very well,” she said, a triumphant gleam in her eye. “The strength came from this program, from the group.” Now, there is a whole network of villages plugged into the group. “Now people saw that they were gaining power and had strength,” Martinus said. The power of the group also put money in their pockets. The small tea farmers had long been “exploited by people who did not give them a proper price,” Martinus said. Before, they were poor and marginalized and easily intimidated. Many of the women had little or no schooling and didn’t read

or write. Now, they were negotiating with factory owners, direct-marketing their own tea “and making a good profit.” Martinus plans to spend a semester teaching at the University of Mississippi. But not just teaching. He would like to explore the Mississippi Delta to see if he could make a difference in the lives of poverty-stricken families who have depended on welfare for three or four generations. This single-minded devotion to the elimination of rural poverty around the world started with one life-changing interaction at a tea plantation. Those simple words — “Do you treat me like this because I am poor?” — changed one man and gave him a lifelong mission. Martinus is quick to point out that he didn’t do this by himself. “I am a social worker, I am a facilitator, I am an educator, I am a leader that will stand behind and beside, not always in the front,” he said. “But more than anything else, I have passion, and I understand people in the same way that I understand myself.” A struggle for the soul of sri lanka



Tragedies? Challenges? Bring ’em on. These women can handle them.


Story by Lana Ferguson

ayangami Magura, a woman who once had no money to speak of, sits in the shade of a humble community building and tries to explain how, almost overnight, she and other women in tiny Baduraliya turned a male-dominated culture on its head and wound up with money in their pockets and a brighter future for their children. She pauses, squints at an unrelenting sun, and her eyes suddenly light up. This is important, so she speaks slowly, to make sure you get it. “If you take a bucket and if there are Dayangami Magur and her community have lived their lives surrounded by prosperous tea plantations and rubber estates on the hillsides of Sri Lanka’s “wet zone,” about 75 miles south of Colombo, always surrounded by money but never having any. holes in the bucket, no matter how much Photo by Marlee Crawford you try to put water in it, it will never retain,” she said. “The most important thing Women like Magura have lived their lives ate up their profits when they tried to is to plug the leaking points, then start sell tea from their small plots or tried to surrounded by prosperous tea plantations pouring.” and rubber estates on the lower hillsides arrange loans from banks. Their men buried The women of Baduraliya plugged so of Sri Lanka’s “wet zone,” about 75 miles their frustration in strong drink, leaving well and poured so much that their women’s the women to raise the children, tend the south of Colombo, always surrounded by association now has 3 million rupees garden, and try to keep the family together. money but never having any. Middlemen (almost $20,000) in the bank.

42 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Then came the women’s association, founded with the help of anti-poverty crusader Nimal Martinus and the Strømme Foundation. It got them together to pool their talent and know-how and brainstorm solutions to their problems. At first, it was tough to get anything done. The men were skeptical. This is a heavily Buddhist country where males traditionally rule the roost, both in terms of faith and family – especially in rural areas. But the women kept at it. And suddenly, something extraordinary happened. They discovered they could change their futures all by themselves. Magura said the women’s association helped them figure out where the village’s resources were leaking out, like the bucket. Once they began patching things up, the community flourished. It all started when five women, including Magura, joined the local chapter of the organization. “We didn’t have a single cent or penny when we joined, but we started,” she said. “We realized this was a good program and it was useful for us, especially poor people.” When the women met, they discussed their problems as individuals and as a community. Before then, they hadn’t really had a forum to talk about the problems plaguing them. “We realized when we’re discussing problems, we need to find solutions by ourselves,” Magura said. And they have. Before, whenever someone’s child got sick or they couldn’t afford something, people would go to the moneylender, who would eventually exploit them, Magura said. Now, the villagers don’t have to do that because of the emergency fund the women’s group created by pooling their pennies. “We started doing some savings because we didn’t have much or good money habits,” Magura said, her voice rising and passion pouring out. “I proudly want to tell you when we joined in 2008 we didn’t have a single penny but today, we are very happy to say that all the people managed to have (plenty of money) in our small women’s organization.” Now people are able to borrow from the

community bank and invest in productive projects like house building, farming, and other income-generating activities. This gives the association the power to build up community members so they can stand on their own. Some of the problems hit closer to home, though. Magura said many husbands spent too much money on drinking and smoking. The women had their reluctant husbands put the money they would be spending on alcohol or cigarettes into a tin to show how much and how fast it added up. The visuals – stacks of bills overflowing little containers – made something click in the minds of the men. They quickly climbed on board and became supportive. “In Sri Lanka, most of the work is done by the women because we work and bring the resources to the family. We also have a right to show the men when they do the wrong thing,” Magura said with a triumphant smile.

“We realized when we’re discussing problems, we need to find solutions by ourselves” -Dayangami Magura As women living in a male-dominated nation, it was intimidating at first. Magura said the training they received finally made the women believe it was possible. “At the beginning, we were worried. We were shy. We were scared,” Magura said. “But through our education programs we were given that confidence that we are equal.” Gradually, the founding five members convinced other mothers and women like them to join. It continues to grow, and today there are 43 similar groups around Sri Lanka.

“When we are together we have power,” Magura said, a proud smile on her face and confidence welling in her voice. “We were able to solve a lot of problems within the families: family disputes, domestic violence, children issues. As a group of mothers, we get together, educate, and have a dialogue in order to find the best way to fix things.” Magura said everything is done as a group. That way, they help each other and everyone is stronger for it. For example, she said if one member has trouble harvesting, everyone does what they can to help get the crop in and that person in return interns with the association. “There is a lot of unity and collaboration, which is also a big value for our society,” Magura said. “In the past it had been lost because of modern development, but we want to build that back because that is our strength for the future.” The association changed Magura’s life, and her daughter, son, and husband have all benefited. They built a house of their own, her husband has a steady job, and her children are doing well in some of the best schools in the area. “All of this happened because of this organization,” Magura said. “We thought we were marginalized and that we were not recognized, but through this we are recognized. We have power and we have rights.” She wants to help others experience the same joy her family has found. “I realized that when we do some good things for the other people, it comes back to you and your family,” Magura said. “We strongly believe that and I can testify that it is happening. I feel that when I leave this world one day I have left something important,” she said. In the old days, poor families were often overwhelmed by the many obstacles they encountered. Now, more and more, families have begun welcoming and overpowering challenges, Magura said. Now, the attitude has become: Problems? Bring ’em on! We can handle it. “I am expecting in the future that we will accomplish bigger things,” Magura said.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Coming Together

Once women joined hands, things happened. A culture changed. A community changed. And life got better for everyone.

Story by Baylee Mozjesik


any months ago, Paliyagataye Nilmini and her family huddled on the roof of their house, watching the water rise and hoping for help. The future, if there was one, looked bleak. Now, sun-worn hands folded delicately on her lap and a narrow smile painted across her face, a newly energized and optimistic Nilmini recalled the harrowing journey of how she got to where she is today, as a mother and an active community facilitator. Baduraliya is located in one of the poorest parts of southwest Sri Lanka. In recent years, the region has suffered through a series of mudslides and a tsunami, and the impact has been severe in this poor, agriculture-dominated community.

44 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

In the wake of so much trouble, Nilmini counts herself lucky to belong to a self-help group of women who banded together under the banner of the non-profit Strømme Foundation of Norway to better the lives of their families. They have found strength and hope in unity, with each of them devoted to helping each other. When she first learned of the women’s group, “I was very poor. I barely had land and I did not cultivate it. I owned a very small house, but it wasn’t completed,” Nilmini said. Nilmini, and many like her, struggled to provide for their families long before the tsunami, rainy season floods and devastating mudslides destroyed broad swaths of their communities. When horrendous flooding and mudslides occurred in May, Nilmini and her family did not lose their lives as some of their friends did. But they were victims nonetheless.

“It was early in the morning. We woke up to so much water in our house. I had a fear, that which I cannot explain,” Nilmini said. “The whole area was underwater, and even though we were on a little bit higher land, the water was rising. We lost electricity and the house went under water. We had to climb onto the roof.” She recounted waiting days for government assistance and rescue boats to arrive, a common problem due to the remote location. Tragedies like this are one of the reasons that the Strømme Foundation teamed up with a local nonprofit, the Self-Help Group Resource Centre, in May 2007 to serve poor and vulnerable people in a way that hadn’t been possible before. The group’s goal was to create a self-help platform, a place where people could gather to discuss problems and brainstorm ways to solve them. The idea was for them to get it done themselves,

P.G. Nilmini counts herself lucky to belong to a self-help group of women who have learned to help each other. Photo by Marlee Crawford

together, rather than have Strømme, the government or someone else do it or mandate something from outside the community. When the project first began, there seemed little hope of success. The SHGRC could not get the men to participate, usually a death knell for projects in the island’s male-dominated culture. As Strømme and SHGRC representatives cast about for solutions, they turned to an unlikely group: the women. In Sri Lanka, especially in rural areas, this was unheard of. But when the women started to find success and make their lives better, things changed. “Early on they opposed [us]; they didn’t like this,” Nilmini said of the men in the village. “They didn’t know what we were doing, but gradually when they observed and experienced the work that we are

doing, they started supporting us. Now almost 100 percent of men are behind us and are giving their full support.” With the dedication and influence of a group of women and mothers just like Nilmini, the village has begun its journey to finding ways to escape poverty and marginalization. “As women and as families we had a lot of problems in our villages. We didn’t know how to solve those issues. Through this project we were able to come together and discuss as a small group,” Nilmini said. “I have managed to learn so many things. I have managed to learn from the other group members and cultivate my land and I get a good income now. I have been able to build my house, educate my children … We are empowered and we know what to do when a crisis comes.” Nilmini says that being able to be a part of decision-making in the community

has not only given her the opportunity to provide for her family, but also show her children that women can be leaders. “We have been able to give knowledge to our children. We have been able to create children and youth clubs where we discuss about child protection, and about educating them,” she said. “We have been able to develop a mechanism within the village where all the mothers get together and do concrete work for the welfare of the children.” The whole community watched as the women got results. And now, at the hands of a group that had been largely marginalized and cut off from any societal leadership, a community has come together for change. “The most important thing is that we were united, and we are united,” Nilmini said. “We can do many things together as a force.” A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


The women of Baduraliya have every reason to smile since they came together to take control of their lives. Photo by Ariel Cobbert

46 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

“My tears are for happiness, joy. My past was full of misery… But today I am happy,” P. Pigawathi Silva said. Photo by Marlee Crawford

Tears of Joy The tsunami destroyed all hope. Then the women got together, And everything changed. Story by Baylee Mozjesik


ears slowly crept down her cheeks as P. Pigawathi Silva told how she and the other women of this humble village overcame tragedy and male bias to create a better life for themselves, their children and their community. Silva, one of the community’s leaders, has received awards from the Western Province government for courage and dedication to her family after weathering a 2004 tsunami that killed more than 35,000 on Sri Lanka’s southwest coasts. After her home was inundated by the towering waves, she and her family fled to higher ground, lucky to be alive. “I lost everything,” Silva said. “I was psychologically very disturbed. It is only my three children and husband left. I lost direction in life. Then I got to know about this (women’s) society and I decided to join [it]. My tears are for happiness, joy. My past was full of misery … But today I am happy.” The tsunami that struck Silva and thousands of others shook the region to its core. But it wasn’t the last tragedy that would strike this

already poor place. Earlier this year, the village was devastated by vast mudslides that destroyed houses and claimed dozens of lives. To top it all off, the heavily male workforce was beaten down, discouraged, in need of motivation. After all those losses, the village desperately needed hope, desperately needed a plan for resurgence. That is when Silva and many women like her stepped up to the challenge. With help from Norway’s Strømme Foundation, they discovered that together, they could use their combined knowledge and skills to better the community through self-help programs and committees. The women were taught practical skills that they could use to make money, boost the local economy and improve the education of their children. The women, many with little more than an elementary school education, learned to plan, to dream big, to work together to help each other and the whole community. Suddenly, where despair reigned, ambition was born. “I started doing some farming, started half an acre of tea … but I invested my income for my children’s education. That was my priority,” Silva said.

She said that when the women began to work, they had to deal with backlash from men in the village who did not approve of women participating in village leadership or usurping the role of breadwinner. Yet, when the women showed how their work benefited the local economy, when money started to appear, the men took notice. They got with the program, a major shift in this male-dominated society. “At the beginning we had challenges with the men,” Silva said with a smile. “Of course when we do good things, they like it and they support it, but in the past it was a different story.” But, even with everything she has done for her family and for the village, Silva said that she has received more in return than she ever could have hoped for. “My dreams were rebuilt without being dependent upon others. I wanted to rebuild my family, wanted to educate my three children, wanted to have my house and wanted to have some income for us to live,” she said. “I started building self-confidence after meeting these women in these groups. Listening with them, working with them, I realized that I have a future.” A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


“The Children Still Scream In The Night.” The mudslide destroyed everything but their determination. Story by Marisa Morrissette


irst, was the fear of death,” Paliyagataye Nilmini said. The 38-year-old mother from Baduraliya and her family woke at dawn May 26 to rising waters and no electricity. As dirty water and mud rushed into their home, the family fled to the roof for safety. Eventually, they were rescued and taken to a local Buddhist temple. They had no idea what would be left of their home when they returned. In the nearby town of Digana, Paliyagataye Piyawathi, a 55-year-old mother, woke to similar danger. “In the morning around 5:30, at dawn, we heard that there had been some landslides not that far away from my house,” Piyawathi said. Both women spoke through a translator. Thirty minutes later, another mudslide swept through the area and engulfed more homes. Like most others in town, Piyawathi’s family had to flee. Fifty-eight homes were evacuated, and many families, like Piyawathi’s, are still separated from their homes. “Everything was lost or buried,” she said. As homes were crushed beneath a chocolate avalanche, so were far too many villagers. Nine people in Digana lost their lives. Piyawathi and her family helped search for victims and learned that the town’s treasurer and her whole family, including her three children, died that morning. “I was shocked. I could not bear it because she was my best friend. She was my treasurer. She had three children who used to come to my house always, and when we came to know that they were lost, I could not bear it. I didn’t know what to do,” Piyawathi said. Sitting at the foot of steep hills, the Baduraliya area has always been at risk for landslides in the rainy season. Just last year, a massive landslide killed more than 100 people. This year’s devastation started in May, the first month of an abnormally wet rainy season. The rain fell in torrents.

It kept falling and kept falling. Finally, soil on saturated hillsides could adhere no longer. Mud roared down from the heights and buried everything in its path. An estimated 250 people perished, and thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged, according to the government. The tragedy underscored the vulnerability of the rural poor on the exposed lower slopes between the southwest mountains of the interior and the coast. For many survivors, life in the aftermath was miserable. Piyawathi’s family eventually went to a rented home supplied by the government. Nilmini, like many others, took refuge in a local Buddhist temple built on higher ground. She said she and her family found “comfort” there. “The most important thing is that we were together. We knew we were not alone. It was a great help to restart life,” Nilmini said. But, at least at first, life at the temple wasn’t so great, either. As a sea of desperate people descended upon the temple grounds, disease ran rampant, and Nilmini said they did not have money to buy medicine. Dengue fever, an incurable disease carried by mosquitoes and fed by the relentless rain, became a major problem. The evacuees slept on hallway floors and had to depend on the charity of others for food and water. Typically, it took a while for the government’s disaster response teams to get help to this rural area. Friends, neighbors, and the victims themselves filled in the gap by working together to solve their problems, just as people did in the chaotic days after a killer tsunami hit the island in 2004, killing more than 35,000. People from churches were among the first to offer help. Among those offering early aid was Nimal Martinus, a social worker and then regional director of the Strømme Foundation, a worldwide rights-based organization. Martinus said it was “very difficult” to communicate following the mudslides and blocked roads made it impossible to get there. After four days, he finally arrived, but his options were limited.

“The most important thing is that we were together. WE knew we were not alone.”

-Paliyagataye Nilmini

48 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Paliyagataye Piyawathi, a 55-year-old mother, took her family and rented a home supplied by the government after the mudslide. Photo by Marlee Crawford

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


“There was not much I could do, but I did try to give them motivation. I went to a couple of villages and met people. It was difficult, but that was needed to motivate them, and give them some strength,” Martinus said. Back in the temple, victims struggled through each day but somehow found the strength of which Martinus spoke. “We didn’t have clothes. There were not enough toilets. There were lots of social issues, but we worked together to sort out issues,” Nilmini said. Together. That is always each woman’s answer. How will they get through this? Together. How will they rebuild their lives? Together. Many of the women are members of a self-help organization created with the help of the Strømme Foundation, which has tried to empower women by giving them a sense of community, teaching them to depend on each other to solve common problems. It is through this sense of community that these women survived. Now Nilmini and Piyawathi aim to stitch together the fabrics of their lives, torn apart by muddy water. The children bore the brunt of the trauma, according to both women. Piyawathi said her children were scarred by the loss of so many family members. “The children still scream in the night,” she said. As Piyawathi’s family moved into their rented house, Nilmini’s family returned 50 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Nilmini’s family returned to their home and found it in near ruins. Photo by Marlee Crawford

to their home and found it in near-ruins. Her family lost everything, including her children’s school supplies. Replacing her children’s belongings has been one of her biggest obstacles. “We had to start from scratch. The whole economy of the family was crushed. The education of the children was hurt. We are now rewriting the notes for the children,” Nilmini said. Her family also had to restart its home garden. In Sri Lanka, produce stands are on almost every corner. Fresh produce is central to Sri Lankan culture, and the ubiquitous backyard gardens can be vital

to a family’s survival. Nilmini’s onceproductive garden was smothered by mud and rocks. It will take one to two months to completely clean her home and resurrect the garden. It’s a lot to handle. Notably, neither woman ever wavers in her determination to find a way to the other side of this tragedy. It is never a question of if something will get done. It is simply how long. That is the heart of each woman’s story. Even after losing everything they own. Even after losing a best friend. They just keep going. They keep rebuilding. Together.

A peek at the village of Baduraliya

TOP: The humdrum lives of these Sri Lankan women have been infused with hope and possibility since they partnered up with Martinez and the Strømme Foundation. Photo by William H. Kelly III. BOTTOM LEFT: Once dim, the future is now bright for kids in Baduraliya. Photo by Marlee Crawford. BOTTOM RIGHT: When the monsoon rains triggered mudslides in Baduraliya, the drainage ditches were quickly overwhelmed. Photo by William H. Kelly III.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


On the morning after Christmas, 2004, an earthquake registering 9.3 on the Richter scale roiled the waters of the Indian Ocean off Indonesia. It sent a wave — one of the biggest ever recorded on earth — zooming toward the busy beaches of Sri Lanka at supersonic speed. Tall and powerful enough to swallow multi-story hotels, the monster crashed ashore at a mind-boggling 500 mph. A killer tsunami. The people had no warning. More than 35,000 died. More than 21,000 were injured. A million left homeless. Cars, houses, hotels, trees and beaches were swept away. Total damages: More than $2.5 billion. A government ill-prepared, poorly equipped and prone to corruption couldn’t handle it. Millions of dollars poured in from all the over the world and that, too, was mishandled. The misery lasted days, then months, then years. Thirteen years later, those who were there still wake up in a cold sweat.

Photo by Ariel Cobbert

52 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

They can never forget

Thirteen years later, they remember it all. The friends who died. The buildings that fell. The race to escape. Now, they curse the name. Tsunami.


Story by Savannah Smith

ashan Raja was just 7 when the tsunami struck. He was visiting his grandmother well inland from the beach and does not remember seeing the actual wave but remembers the immediate aftermath – brown water everywhere. Twenty years old now, he still reels from the shock of losing his best friend and his home in the same instant. “I wish it had never happened,” he says with sudden fire in his eyes. He glances down at the tattoo needled onto his arm in remembrance of his best friend. “Hashan,” it says. They shared everything, including their first name. “When I see the tattoo, I remember all

the things we did together,” Raja said. Those were good times, the best. They would eat together, sleep together, just like brothers. When his best friend died, he didn’t know what to do with his life, Raja said, sadness clouding his face. The government was slow to respond, then haphazard and ineffective in relief. It tried to enforce a bold new law banning construction within 100 meters – nearly a football field – of the beach. Later, the government’s enforcement resolve crumbled in the face of a lucrative new wave of beachfront resort hotel construction. But it was too late for Raja’s family and many others who had had to find other housing quickly. With their home washed away, Raja’s

family moved inland. His father was a fisherman but the tsunami took his boat and hundreds of others. The new home was too far away from what had been his livelihood. He had to learn an entirely new way of life. Today, he drives a tuktuk, a three-wheeled taxi. The fisherman has become a landlubber, fishing for fares. The surge of new construction was not all bad, at least not for the local economy. Once fear of the beach subsided and towering new hotels sprang up, the economy for surfboarding and surf shops was better than ever. Now a shiny Marriott towers over the beach here, looking out to sea where the wave originated, fed by a distant undersea earthquake.

Hashan Raja will never forget the loss of his best friend to the tsunami. “When I see the tattoo, I remember all the things we did together,” Raja said.

Photos by Marlee Crawford

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


When the wave hit, SK Sahan clung to a tree for an hour before help arrived.

Encouraged by the peace that followed a vicious civil war that tore the countryside asunder, the tourists are back. White sand beaches once littered with corpses are now crowded with surfboard vendors and refreshment stands and T-shirt salesmen and sunbathers. Now, Raja works the Weligama beach as a surfing instructor alongside several other people affected by the tsunami. One of them is S.K. Sahan. He was 11 when it happened. He was working the beach that morning. He remembers how the ocean pulled way back from the beach, farther than it had ever pulled back before. He remembers watching the wave build. He remembers the brown color of the water.

54 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

He got swept up by the first of three towering waves and managed to grab the limb of a tree and pull himself to safety. He clung to the tree for an hour before help arrived. He was lucky. He saw many bodies floating in the frothy water beneath him. His home was gone, his family forced to live elsewhere, far from their beloved beach. His school was washed away. “We had [a] one-month holiday, then they built another school [inland],” Sahan said. “After 2 to 3 months, we could go to another school. The [first] school was not comfortable. It was small rooms to study and teach in.” Relocating children into different schools was just one of many obstacles people faced.

Photo by Marlee Crawford

Help arrived first from neighbors and relief organizations. People came from all around to help rebuild houses and try to make life as “normal” as it could be. But normalcy came hard. Most people here say it took nearly five years to really feel normal again. Sahan explained that it took people a year or two just to feel good about getting in the water again after seeing so many of their loved ones washed away. Some people have never been the same. Some may never be. Sahan says he still jolts upright in the bed at night, tormented by dreams in which he sees the tsunami coming. Like many others, over time he has learned to overcome most of his fears. He even lives close to the water

14 years after the tsunami, concessionaires have crept back to the ocean’s very edge.

and has become a surfing instructor. Sahan and his friends have had to acknowledge this tragedy and carry it with them in their new normal, building new lives the best way they can. But still the memories linger. How could they not? “In the morning, I got a call from my sister,” recalled Nimal Martinus. “She said, ‘There’s a problem. The beach is coming out. The ocean is coming out.’ I started laughing. I said, ‘Oh you are just pulling my leg, it’ll never happen.’ Then, I hung up the phone because I thought she was joking.” “Again, she rang me,” he continued. “She said, ‘Please, watch the television and there is something going on, funny.’ Then I told my wife to turn the television on and I saw

that there were a lot of alerts and news.” “I had never heard the word ‘tsunami’ at that time, so I wondered what it was,” Martinus said. “That means it’s a wave. And I decided to immediately go because I knew that if that comes my mother and my sisters, everyone, will perish.” “So, I’m basically driving down in my jeep to get them, but I could not reach there,” he said. “I had to get down from my jeep and run because of the traffic. I started running because I wanted to save my mother first and then the rest of the people. By the time I went there, I saw so many people on the road crying, screaming, carrying their babies and little small things and running away from the coastal belt.” “I never saw such a turbulence in people,”

Photo by Ariel Cobbert

Martinus said. “They didn’t know what to do. When I started walking towards the ocean, I had never seen so much destruction. People were crying and I could not really walk because of so much debris.” “I got a call from my mother telling me that her sister and her four daughters, all of them [are] gone,” Martinus said. “They have no trace. That was hard for me. That was my elder aunt.” Thirteen years, and still the watermarks of the tsunami run deep. Thirteen years. And still, they remember everything. “We were helpless and we didn’t know what to do,” Raja said, speaking the words so many others utter. “We were not ready for a natural disaster like that to happen.” A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


A Tale Of Trials Colonialism. Civil war. Peacetime democracy. Sri Lanka has seen it all. Story by Ethel Mwedziwendira


uled for centuries by colonial powers, ravaged by war and savaged by floods, including a killer tsunami, exotic Sri Lanka is a testament to survival. But lately, freed from authoritarian rule and 26 years of civil war, the island is thriving. With a reform-minded government, booming tourism, and annual economic growth averaging more than 6 percent for the last

decade, things are looking up. However, the road to peace and prosperity was not always so smooth. Sri Lanka’s ancient history starts in 500 B.C., the estimated date that the Sinhalese began to migrate across the Palk Strait from India. It soon became an island ruled by kings, who came up with an ingenious canal system to drain low swampy terrain and turn it into productive land. Soon it became an island of

Dutch take control from Portuguese

key events in history

56 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

British start bringing in Tamil Indians for labor



Portuguese arrive in Colombo

rich kingdoms, trading with countries across Asia and northern Africa. It was only a matter of time before its expanding riches caught the eye of India. The Indians invaded several times over the years, exacting tribute and mining resources. Over the years, even after India pulled back, dominance by foreign powers lured by Sri Lanka’s abundant resources was to become a troublesome pattern. India’s

1815 1796

British begin to takeover island


British control entire island

The road to peace and prosperity was not always so smooth. Photo by Ariel Cobbert

presence foreshadowed other annexations by the Dutch, the Portuguese and, finally, the British, each yearning for riches, power, and resources. In fact, the colorful history of the country can be neatly divided into threes: ancient Sri Lanka; Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism; and modern-day Sri Lanka. Each has left its mark. Under the rule of Lourenço de Almeida, Portugal established relations with King Vijaybahu of the Sri Lankan kingdom of Kotte in about 1505. The king hoped to use Portuguese protection to maintain a stable economy but it turned out that the

Ceylon gains independence

Portuguese wanted more than friendly relations. They invaded, seeking valuable spices and ordering the king of Kotte to sell them cinnamon at a fixed price. When Vijaybahu resisted, the Portuguese resorted to force, leading to an agreement to give them cinnamon as a yearly tribute. With the Portuguese came Catholic priests, who did their best to spread the faith through the countryside, though with mixed results. But there were other colonial powers with an eye on the island. Dutch ships arrived in 1636, signaling a period in which both groups fought for power. The Dutch soon drove the Portuguese from the island.

The Dutch traders managed to hold on until 1796, when the British Empire turned its ever-expansive eye upon the spice island. They made quick work of the Dutch and embarked upon 150 years of British rule that would forever leave its distinctive mark on Sri Lanka. Its remnants are still prominent today in government (a Parliament with wigs), courts (those wigs again), and the island’s principal export, Ceylon tea. The British moved slower at first than previous conquerors, constantly visiting before they declared themselves rulers of the island. Ships later flocked to Sri Lanka’s coasts and began a booming international trade. Tamils form Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

PM assassinated by Buddhist monk



1959 1950s

Sinhala nationalism increases. Tamils increasingly disenfranchised


Ceylon changes name to Sri Lanka and Buddhism given primary place as country’s religion

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


The island was once known as the Kandyan Kingdom during Portuguese and Dutch rule. The British changed it to British Ceylon in 1815. The name derived from an early Portuguese and Arabic name, Zeylan or Seylan. It was maintained until 1972 when the country became a republic and underwent another name change to Sri Lanka, “The Resplendent Land,” and then to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Under British rule, English became the official language. At the time, the population was dominated by Sinhalese speakers dating back to 500 B.C., and to a lesser extent, Tamils. Anxious to reap the island’s benefits, the trade-minded British turned Ceylon into a productive hub for coconut plantations, cinnamon, coffee, and tea. They built railways to make it easier to transport goods to market and to encourage other economic development. Well-versed in the colonial game, the British employed a divide-and-rule tactic that the empire had already put to good use in parts of Europe. They brought in more than a million Tamil speakers from southern India to work as plantation laborers, establishing schools and appointing Tamils to many bureaucratic positions. That led to resentment by the majority Sinhalese, but the British were able to keep ethnic tensions from boiling over as long as they were in control. Some historians have blamed the British for laying the foundation for the island’s continuing ethnic tensions. But Violence again escalates & “Second Ealam War” begins

First Ealam War: 13 soldiers killed in Tamil ambush. AntiTamil riots ensued, killing hundreds of Tamils

58 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

“We can assure that there is hope for a better future For our children and for ourselves as well, regardless of political corruption.” -Milan rambukwella Britain’s empire faded rapidly after World War II and it finally granted Ceylon independence in 1948. Most of Sri Lanka’s history until then had been marked by foreign control or war. Soon enough, ethnic resentment exploded into open conflict after the Sinhalese-controlled government passed laws that Tamils found offensive, including the declaration of Sinhalese as the nation’s official language. Tensions between the two groups exploded into bloody riots. Soon, Sri Lanka was at war with itself. The civil war raged off and on for nearly 30 years, as the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam pulled off one violent

“Third Ealam War” begins after failed peace talks



Karu Jayasuriya, the speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, said it was “not fair” to blame the British. “The British gave us a good education, a good road network,” and other institutions that endure to this day, he said.

1995 1993

Sri Lankan president assassinated by LTTE


Government and Tamils initiated cease fire

car bombing after another in and around the capital of Colombo. They introduced the term “suicide bomber” to the world’s lexicon. They blew up the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, and assassinated more than 50 government officials, police, military officers, lawyers and journalists, including a sitting Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister of India. In the late 1980s, the rebels’ frequent suicide bombings and assassinations helped placed it on the FBI’s radar as one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world. Finally, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a newly energized and aggressive government army crushed the last remnants of the once-feared Tamil Tigers and declared victory on May 16, 2009. The civil war was over. The long process of unifying the country and rebuilding the economy had just begun. Rajapaksa, whose government was rife with corruption and nepotism — it often seemed as if half his relatives were on the payroll — was defeated by his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, in 2015. The new president has embarked on an ambitious agenda of reform and reconciliation. Today people are happy, says Milan Rambukwella, a Sri Lankan doctoral student in physics at the University of Mississippi. “We can assure that there is hope for a better future for our children and for ourselves as well, regardless of political corruption,” he said.

Large tsunami hits coast, Civil war ends after government kills over 30k people captures Tamil headquarters




Peace talks in Geneva fail


UN says both sides of the war committed war crimes

Island deemed Malaria-free



Government implements Right of Information Act

Colombo evolving

TOP: The long process of unifying the country and rebuilding the economy is just beginning. Photo by Ariel Cobbert. LEFT: New high rise towers are constantly leaping into the Colombo skyline. Photo by Ariel Cobbert. RIGHT: Colombo has grown so fast that its alleys sometimes overflow with trash. Photo by William H. Kelly III.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


The debt trap Illustration by Marisa Morrissette

Sri Lanka is growing at a healthy pace. Now if it can just find a way out from under all those IOU’s.


minnow in a sea of powerhouse Asian countries, Sri Lanka would seem primed for economic growth. Sitting midway between Singapore and Dubai, the island forms a pivotal link on major East-West shipping lanes. Eight years after a violent civil war, it is reaping a peace dividend, averaging a healthy annual growth rate of just over 6 percent from 2010 to 2015. The poverty rate sits at 6.7 percent, the lowest in Asia. Tourism is on the rise. A business-friendly reform government is blossoming. Yet despite its modern advances, Sri Lanka’s economy faces formidable challenges. An astounding 95 percent of its revenue 60 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Story by Ariyl Onstott

goes to pay down billions of dollars in loans from China and the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, its own fiscal mistakes and recent severe weather plague the country domestically. In an August interview, Karu Jayasuriya, speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, acknowledged his country’s rising debt, but noted that Sri Lanka has never failed to make its payments. The island’s economy also suffers from a lack of local entrepreneurship. Many typically seek government jobs and accompanying benefits over starting their own businesses. Sri Lanka, said the speaker, “is paying a high price” for having one government employee for every 15 persons in the

population – a percentage much higher than the standard one for every 280. Besides a bloated bureaucracy, he said, “We have too many holidays. Every full moon day’s a holiday … It’s not easy to change. If you try to change, you get thrown out from the government.” Still, Sri Lanka, a lower middle-income nation, is gradually overcoming many developmental challenges faced by poorer nations – specifically the transition from rural agriculture to a more urbanized economy. Service, industry, and agriculture now dominate the economy, in that order, with tourism gaining ground. Last year, the government estimated the number of employed at 8 million. Of these,

Illustration by Marisa Morrissette

46.1 percent were in the service sector in fields such as education, transportation, and communication. About 27.1 percent worked in agriculture (primarily tea farming and fishing), and 26.8 percent worked in mining, manufacturing, and construction. According to World Bank data, in 2015, the service sector represented 62.4 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP, with industries at 28.9, and agriculture at 8.7. The IMF and World Bank are not the only ones who see diversification and an increase in exports as necessary to sustain Sri Lanka’s growth amidst globalizing markets. In an article for the World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently summed up the island’s ambitions: “I see Sri Lanka’s economic future as a services hub; a niche manufacturing destination to produce goods which plug into regional and global value chains, particularly light engineering; and a location for high-value agricultural products such as fruits, vegetable and dairy, both to service the rapidly growing tourism sector and for exports, especially to the Middle Eastern and Indian markets.” But there is much to be done. Even though Sri Lanka is making strides towards a more diversified, businessfriendly economy, tea remains its top export commodity ($1.22 billion in 2015). So, though agriculture makes up the smallest portion of its GDP, it still comprises its largest export. Sri Lanka’s top imports are motorized aircraft such as planes and helicopters ($2.06 billion in 2015), refined petroleum, cars, crude petroleum, textile fabrics and mineral products. Consequently, MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity pegged the island’s trade deficit at about $9.2 billion in 2015. Not only does this mean that the nation is spending more than it makes, but that it is also dangerously adding to a major developmental threat: debt. Its burgeoning debt load, nearly three-quarters of its GDP, is sizable for a developing country. It stands at approximately $64 billion, according to the BBC.

On top of that, in early 2016, Sri Lanka requested a loan from the IMF to the tune of $1.5 billion for structural economic support. It could be argued that Sri Lanka’s own fiscal mistakes are at the root of its economic fragility. Its unstable tax system made it vulnerable to foreign investors’ withdrawal when money was tight, leading the country to turn to the IMF for help. According to The Economist, tax revenues amount to just 13 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP of more than $81 billion. Countries with comparable income levels usually reap 20 percent. Since the country is not utilizing

a primary revenue source to balance its budget, it has to rely heavily on foreign funds to finance its economy instead. To exacerbate the problem, Sri Lanka’s new administration cut corporate and income taxes, introducing flat rates of 15 percent, to lure investors to the country and grow business around the island. But a loan from the International Monetary Fund does not come without strings. The IMF wants to see a reduced budget deficit, simplified tax system, tighter oversight of state-owned enterprises, wellmanaged public finances, and increased support for trade and investment.




US FOREIGN ASSISTANCE TO SRI LANKA Since an autocratic leader was defeated, a reform government has strengthened the democracy. The amounts shown are in U.S. dollars.

REQUESTS Economic Support

$31.02 mil 31.02 million from 2015 Foreign Military Financing


400 thousand from 2015

$39.797 million in total requested in 2017

Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining and Related Programs

$6.8 mil

4 million from 2015

International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement

$1 mil

4 million from 2015

Development Assistance


500 thousand from 2015 International Military Education and Training


500 thousand from 2015

Source: Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification, Foreign Operations, FY 2017. Data for 2016 not available. Graphic by Marisa Morrissette

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


A large chunk of Sri Lanka’s debt is owned by Chinese investors who have paid Chinese firms to build infrastructure around the island. Constructed by a Chinese company, the Hambantota port is funded with Chinese loans totaling $6 billion. Yet despite being open for seven years, the port receives little use. Struggling to repay the loan, Sri Lanka gave a Chinese firm, China Merchants Port Holdings, a 70 percent stake in the port via a signed agreement to convert Sri Lanka’s loans into equity, according to news accounts. Hambantota was intended to relax pressure on the Colombo port and increase the flow of ships to the island. Yet many here fear China may have an ulterior motive. With so much of the island’s revenue going to repay debt, and a large percentage of its revenues coming from foreign investors such as China, Sri Lanka will be partly repaying China with China’s money. How much do the Chinese really stand to gain from the island financially? However, Sri Lanka happens to occupy a prime location on sea routes navigated by oil shipments from the Middle East.

Energy security through increased influence on Indian Ocean routes would be a strong reason for China to invest, and a way to counter American hegemony on two choke points along oil shipping lanes – the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca. A knowledgeable American in Colombo noted that half of all the world’s petroleum reserves and containers pass Galle in the south headed for China. “We [U.S.] are very worried about China,” he said. The Hambantota port on the island’s southwest tip holds a strategic geographic position for China – a few nautical miles from some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Now that the port has struggled to make money (due largely to its isolated location), and China is set to take over, China aims to alleviate the problem by creating a large economic zone – buying 15,000 acres of adjacent land. Many locals resent China’s influence. Not only do they not want to give up their land, they also feel the country is being parceled off bit by bit to the Chinese. Local fishermen have been among the most outspoken foes of Chinese investment, organizing protests. Police


The all-important Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Sri Lanka expanded 3.8 percent in the first quarter of 2017 over the same period last year. The GDP growth rate averaged 6.07 percent from 2003 to 2016, reaching an all-time high of 16.12 percent in the first quarter of 2012 and a record low of 0.48 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013. 10

2 0








6.79 6.00







Highest annual growth rate

1990 2000 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016

Source: World Bank Graphic by Marisa Morrissette

62 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Lowest annual growth rate


The government estimated last year that 8 million people were employed, mostly in the service sector. Unemployment is a 4.5 percent.






Source: World Bank Graphic by Marisa Morrissette

used tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators in January, which deepened the fury against the Chinese and the government. Others suggest the rapidly expanding Chinese Navy could one day muscle its way into Sri Lanka’s ports, with Sri Lanka lacking the military might to impede them. Yet maintaining independence is hard for developing nations who must grow to remain competitive and attract the eye of wealthier countries. They often rely on foreign investors to prop up their economies. When Sri Lanka was poised to face sanctions from the West for crimes committed during its war with Tamil separatists, China eagerly became a key economic and diplomatic ally. Many of the Chinese projects were implemented during the autocratic presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and in 2015 the new democratic government pledged to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence on China. But financial pressures have forced President Maithripala Sirisena’s government to cave. After suspending a major Chinese project – a new city built off the coast of Colombo designed to become a South Asian hub by 2040 – the government ultimately found the $1.4 billion project too tempting to resist. Complicating matters is the island’s long

AN ECONOMIC SNAPSHOT About 95 percent of Sri Lanka’s revenues go to pay off huge loans from China. The country is trying to sustain economic growth despite the high debt payments, and a bloated civil service, which contribute to historically high budget deficits and low tax revenues. Government debt is about 77 percent of GDP, among the highest of emerging markets.




relationship with India, its greatest trading partner. More than 70 percent of cargo in Colombo’s port is shipped to and from India, which also has provided billions in developmental assistance. Investment in Sri Lanka also has considerable strategic value for India, and it seems determined to check China’s geopolitical ambitions in South Asia. Many of Sri Lanka’s Tamil residents in the central north and northeast migrated from India, and the mutualistic Indo-Sri Lankan relationship has lasted for over 2,500 years. Sri Lanka sees cultivating ties with both nations as a way to transform the island into a regional commercial hub. However, as it navigates relationships between its new investor and its longtime trading partner, Sri Lanka may find difficulty in striking a balance between two fierce rivals’ competing interests. Speaker Jayasuriya flashes a diplomatic smile at this suggestion. “We have a policy of being friends to everybody with no enemies,” he said. Besides its mounting debt and the pressures of foreign influences abroad, the island’s economy also faces a domestic threat it cannot control. A record drought has raged since last year. With little rain, many farmers have lost their crops and their income.


Budgeted revenues


$10.98 billion

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that production of rice, Sri Lanka’s staple food, is likely to fall almost 40 percent to 2.7 million tons this year. Other crops like chilies and onions are projected to dwindle. Around 900,000 people can’t grow enough food to feed their families, and prices have skyrocketed at local markets. To combat rising food insecurity and prevent domestic economic crisis, Sri Lanka needs seeds, irrigation support, equipment, and cash assistance for farmers. Where this will come from and whether it will add to the debt remains to be seen. Besides building resilience to natural disasters, the World Bank (like the IMF) recommends Sri Lanka raise revenue while checking its current spending to bring debt to manageable levels. Sri Lanka hopes to begin this process through implementation of its new Inland Revenue Act, which the IMF expects will boost tax revenues. Whether Sri Lanka will be able to dodge its nagging perils to become a key regional player is uncertain. The stakes are high, and moving towards real economic development will start with whether reforms now in motion will take root.


8.7 28.9






$82.62 billion Unemployment rate


Inflation rate


Source: CIA World Factbook, World Bank, MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity Graphic by Marisa Morrissette

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


For Nilmini Karunarathne’s family, the gleaming science labs, the modern equipment and the green, tree-shrouded campus in Oxford, was what led them to migrate. Photo by Ariel Cobbert

THE ASIAN PIPELINE Science scholars from Sri Lanka’s highlands flock to Mississippi.


Story by Ethel Mwedziwendira

ilmini Karunarathne and Nalaka Liyanage met at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, where they were studying chemistry and physics. When they got their degrees, they heard from former classmates in America at a place called Ole Miss. It’s great, they were told. You should come too. So they left behind their life in Kandy, leaving its lush tropical rain forest hills and a country still recovering from a civil war to begin doctoral studies in Mississippi. They fretted back about tuition costs and the familiar life they would leave behind. Then they saw the gleaming science labs, the modern equipment and the green, tree-shrouded campus in Oxford. The university had a state-of-the-art Ph.D program, unlike any other they had seen. And that’s what that led them here. Initially, adjusting to life in America was difficult. There was new food, new traditions, a new culture, new clothing styles and oh, those Southern drawls. They had been told what to expect, how Mississippians would be extremely social, very talkative, more so than Sri Lankans.

64 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

But when they arrived, they were surprised to find the climate brought flashbacks of home. The humidity in the summer was like Sri Lanka during monsoon season, the air steamy and heavy. The only thing different was the winter. That they didn’t have in Sri Lanka. Over time the couple has begun to blend in with the locals, adopting Oxford’s small-town Southern charm and its vernacular into their vocabulary. Their English at times is broken and when they answer questions, responses are still usually short, often consisting of “yeah” and “no.” “At first, it [adjusting in Oxford] was hard,” said Liyanage. “Whenever we went to a place we didn’t know the procedure. For example, self-checkout in Walmart. But with time, we got familiar with those things and now we are fine.” They’ve been in Oxford about four years now. Liyanage, the husband, arrived in 2013 after completing his B.S.A. at the University of Peradeniya. He’s more introverted than Karunarathne, but displays a warm smile when his home country and course of study are discussed. “In our country we do not have many facilities to do the Ph.D

program. In here, we have a lot of facilities and opportunities,” Liyanage says. He has already persuaded classmates from back home to join him here. Friends had told Liyanage what to expect, what teachers to take, what courses were rigorous. What he wasn’t warned about was how different the education system was. Back in Sri Lanka, public education is free with the exception of the Ph.D program. And because Sri Lanka was once under British rule, the education system is similar to the British school system. Connected through their love of learning, Karunarathne and Liyanage have always made education a priority. Following Liyanage’s enrollment at Ole Miss, Karunarathne followed shortly after and dove into atmospheric physics. Karunarathne taught fundamentals of physics during the fall semester. Despite their busy schedules, the couple finds time for each other and family, finding a balance between studies and home life. The Sri Lankan population in Mississippi continues to expand, according to Karunarathne. “We have lots of families

here,” she said. “There is another girl who works in this department, and my brother, he is also here.” This small branch of Sri Lanka is steadily growing across North Mississippi, from Oxford to Starkville. They’re concentrated in the sciences — from biology to physics — and they find ways to connect with each other.

“IN SRI LANKA WE CANNOT ACHIEVE A DEGREE LIKE THIS. SO IT’S A REALLY BIG THING IN MY LIFE -- IN OUR LIVES.” - NILMINI KARUNARATHE “We have some parties here and there,” Liyanage said. “We invite all the Sri Lankans here because there are a lot of

families in the pharmacy department and science departments.” Despite the rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss, they connect through activities like cricket and celebrate the Sri Lankan New Year, Aluth Avurudda, in April in Starkville, where a larger group of Sri Lankans is located at Mississippi State University. They have a startling observation about Oxford. “Kandy looks like Mississippi. It’s not a trans-city like New York. It’s just like Oxford,” Karunarathne said. She insists there are more things to enjoy in Sri Lanka, however. “You can cover the entire country within a week. It’s small and we have a great variety of climate.” The couple’s love for their new home runs deep and has grown stronger through time. Mississippi’s hospitality, its history and appeal is not something they plan on leaving for a while. Until they get their degrees.“One thing is, in Sri Lanka we cannot achieve a degree like this. So it’s really a big thing in my life — in our lives,” Karunarathne said. They are not alone.

Nalake Liyange, the husband, arrived in 2013 after completing his B.S.A. at the University of Peradeniya. Photo by Ariel Cobbert

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


When Kumari returned to Sri Lanka, it wasn’t long before she returned to America, this time coming down south to Mississippi.

Photo by Ariel Cobbert

A PLACE TO CALL HOME For Achini Kumari, Oxford is now home, a place to settle. Oxford is a predominantly Christian community steeped in Southern charm while her home country is a repository of Buddhist faith and culture. But like Karunarathne, Kumari insists that the town itself — its atmosphere, its proportions, its friendliness — is not too different from her home town of Kandy. “I have twin daughters, and they’re exhausting,” she laughs. “But, I love it here. It’s a second home.” Kumari came to the United States at age 7. Her dad had once been a researcher and professor in Pennsylvania and her mom, a high school teacher. Education ran deep in her family. When she returned to Sri Lanka, it wasn’t long before she returned to America, this time coming down south to Mississippi in 2006. America had always been a second home, a place of familiarity. “They say that Mississippi is twice the size of Sri Lanka,” Kumari says. “In scale, Sri Lanka is small and isn’t as clean as 66 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Oxford. The public transportation system is also different.” But the town’s charm was captivating, and so were the people. She smiles at the memory of her first friendly encounter in Oxford. It was at the bank. “The greetings were surprising to me,” she said. “The ‘Hey, how are you’s.’ It was very welcoming.” She knew she had made the right decision. From the beginning she wanted one thing: a degree and to someday teach. Kumari had always been a reader. She loved English literature. But she also found pleasure in logistics and the idea of learning how to program and write an application. She looked at Facebook often, wondering whether she could make something like it. Instead, she discovered that she enjoyed teaching more and decided to pursue an education degree. In the classroom, she occasionally engages her students about Sri Lankan history. “Usually they are curious, but sometimes

they don’t want to ask,” Kumari said. People she meets ask her about the culture, the religious makeup of the island, and the civil war. They’re not questions out of the ordinary, especially those about the war. Kumari recalls going to school and amid a wave of suicide bombings by Tamil terrorists, who pioneered the deadly art. At that time, suicide bombings were something alien to the rest of the world. But in Sri Lanka, they were common. The bombs found their victims everywhere. “It could be children, it could be adults, it could be women, it could be young boys. Nobody really knew. It’s something no country should ever have to face. And even with everything that’s going on in the world, there’s always a small percentage of people that create the biggest messes,” she said. You could never let your guard down during the bombings.

“You have your parents going off to work and you’re going off to school, and you’re in a situation where you don’t know what will happen. That’s terrifying,” she said. Even in the calm serenity of Oxford, she occasionally has flashbacks of fearful times in Sri Lanka during the war. With the little free time that she has, she enjoys traveling with her two children. So far, they’ve been to Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. She has built a home. She communicates with her family through Skype and Facebook. Separated from them by more than 9,000 miles, it’s hard to not be homesick. But now she considers traveling there as a journey, and Oxford as home. “I used to think that I would go back to Sri Lanka full-time, but recently I’ve been changing my mind. I’m so used to it here that I prefer it. You never know, I can never say that I will never go back,” she said.

“I love it here. It’s a second home.” - ACHINI KUMARI

They were amazed how charming the town of Oxford was.

Photo by Ji Hoon Heo

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Mallika Hewamanna (left) and friend hover over Hewamanna’s stove top filled with Sri Lankan dishes.

Photos by Savannah Smith

STRANGE NEW WORLD From a fertile island in the Bay of Bengal to the red clay hills of Oxford.


hoes lie all in a row by the front door. Inside, the smell of warm spices fills the air. It is a Saturday night in late July in Oxford and the Hewamanna family is hosting a gathering for 20 other Sri Lankans living around Mississippi and the greater Memphis area. The sound of laughing children in the living room blends with the rumblings of men speaking around the dinner table. It feels warm and bright, like a family holiday. The women stand in the kitchen preparing the last of the traditional Sri Lankan dishes. Soon there is a feast of seeni sambol buns, sour fish curry, dhal curry, fried and mixed rice jackfruit curry, coconut sambol, kale mellun, potato fried curry,

68 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

Story by Savannah Smith

homemade pickle, eggplant moju, bittergourd salad, wade and pappadam with watalappan for dessert. Mallika Hewamanna skates around the house making sure the guests are comfortable. She offers drinks and pre-dinner snacks. She hovers over her stovetop, adding final fresh ingredients, some of which have come from her backyard garden. Four or five families from North Mississippi and Memphis are tucked away in different corners of the house, speaking to each other in Sinhalese, their native tongue. Relics from their homeland are on display, including a traditional carving of elephants parading in the yearly Esala Perahera festival in their hometown of Kandy,

whose easygoing atmosphere reminds Hewamanna a lot of Oxford. It is amazing how often people abroad encounter people from their hometown or country, and Sri Lankans are no different. They spring from a proud and ancient culture that bends over backward to help visitors and guests and make them feel at home. And home is just what this house feels like to these expatriates. It is warm and friendly and feels like family which, in a way, it is. The Hewamannas are just one of a growing number of Sri Lankan families in Oxford. In 2006, they came so Mallika could pursue doctoral studies in pharmaceutical sciences. Access to doctoral studies is limited in Sri Lanka and out-of-state tuition at Ole

Miss is low enough to be attractive to students from far away. The family liked Oxford so much that she thought nothing of getting a job here with a local laboratory. Nights like tonight are a reminder of the growing community they now have in America, but the transition to a new life in the red clay hills of North Mississippi had its share of obstacles. At first, Hewamanna had a hard time understanding all those drawling Southern accents. The youngest seems to have had it easiest. Isuru Hewamanna was just 6 when they moved to America. Now he has begun his senior year at Oxford High School. Isuru remembers knowing only the English word “teacher” when he arrived. It took around 6 months for him to adjust, with the help of his first-grade teacher. He has since become a top student, competing in math, science and debate competitions. He is interested in

studying science like his mother – he wants to be a biomedical engineer – and would love to attend Ole Miss. He runs cross country for Oxford High. He joined the Boy Scouts in second grade and excelled at that, too. He earned the coveted Eagle Badge, Scouting’s highest rank. His Eagle Scout project? A wellengineered 12-foot bridge over a stream at Camp Lake Stevens. “I got members of the Sri Lankan community to help me,” Isuru explained. Help and support is exactly what a lot of these families give to one another in Oxford, a place with a climate not so far removed from Sri Lanka’s but a culture so very different. They work hard at maintaining Sri Lankan traditions and at the same time, fitting in. Local cricket teams sponsored by the university are another way that Sri Lankans, including Isuru, have gotten involved. Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist. But there is no temple in Oxford. If

Buddhists here want to go to a temple or take food to the monks, they have to drive to Memphis. Many holidays are considered sacred in Sri Lanka, a land of frequent festivals, so many that Parliament’s Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has lamented the fact that holidays seem to pop up every few days, interfering with productivity. And Sri Lankans here continue to celebrate holidays well, even though they are nearly 10,000 miles from home. One particularly popular one is the New Year’s Festival, when families play traditional games such as musical chairs and “Pin The Tail on the Elephant.” Sri Lankans in Oxford have discovered that the Sri Lankan Student Association at Mississippi State University celebrates this tradition, so some try to make the cross-state drive to Starkville to join in when they can. Approximately 60 Sri Lankan students, faculty and their families attend each year.

LEFT: Inoka Widanagamage and her son Senidu Weerasinghe are one of many who gather in the house of Hewamanna to maintain Sri Lanka traditions. RIGHT: A cornucopia of Sri Lanka dishes beckons.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


LAND OF THE WILD Nearly 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s wildlife cannot be found anywhere else on earth.


Story by Lana Ferguson

uddled in a treehouse well above the ground, Deevaka Weerakoon waited for elephants. When the herd didn’t show up at the usual time, Weerakoon and fellow researchers climbed down from the safety of the tree house onto a concrete ledge below when they saw them. The elephants had taken a different route, sneaking up on them from behind. Suddenly, several tons of elephant flesh were upon them. Terrified of being trampled, Weerakoon and his companions did the only thing they could. They froze, clinging to their small slice of space next to the tree as the leathery behemoths shuffled past. “I could have reached out and touched them, but if one of us got excited, all of us would have died that day,” Weerakoon said. Until recently, elephant-rich Sri Lanka wasn’t on a lot of travelers’ bucket lists because of the island’s prolonged civil war. After the bloodshed ended in May 2009, tourists began paying more attention to this South Asian island, one of the world’s top biodiversity hot spots. The wildlife is so ubiquitous visitors become aware of it as soon as they step out of the Colombo


airport terminal. Monkeys clamber through trees eagerly watching to see if people drop any food. Tourists quickly learn not to leave backpacks or purses open because the little rascals will jump in. There’s something for everyone: the majestic leopard, massive elephant, beautiful bird life, and whales just offshore. There are monkeys, mongoose, sloth bears, jackals, crocodiles, water buffalo, wild boars. While it took outsiders a long time to discover this hidden gem, the people of Sri Lanka have been embracing its animals and climate since ancient times. Weerakoon is a conservation biologist in the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences at the University of Colombo. He’s spent many years studying the wildlife, plants, and biodiversity of the island and loves to talk about it. “In this one country within maybe four hours, you can see the largest animal in the ocean, come back, go to a close-by national park and see the largest terrestrial animal, and you can see the smallest animal in the world,” Weerakoon said. “We are blessed with many different kinds of species.” Nature conservation, of both sea and land, has a







The largest congregation of Asian elephants can be found in Minneriya National Park in August and September every year when hundreds migrate there



To discourage poachers, the government crushed, then incinerated a giant stack of


Elephants are often chained within Buddhist temples or marched in religious parade

tusks confiscated from poachers

Source: Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society, Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo

70 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka


Graphic by Ethel Mwedziwendira

An elephant in the backyard have been a sign of wealth, privilege and power in Sri Lanka. Photo by Marlee Crawford

prominent history here. The island’s first nature reserve was established in the third century B.C. by King Devanampiya Tissa, in this category at least, a man before his time. Now, Sri Lanka, the 25th largest island in the world, has almost 15 percent of its land protected by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Weerakoon said this kind of protection is vital because several species will disappear from the world forever if they go extinct in Sri Lanka. Twenty-six species of birds and 16 animal species can be found nowhere else. In addition to wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, there are 22 national parks. The first park was introduced in 1938, with four parks added as recently as 2015. Some of the older parks are in areas affected by the civil war, which shut them down periodically. All 22 parks are now operating. Each park has its own claim to fame. The most popular host leopards, elephants, sloth bears or hundreds of species of birds. Covering the countryside in the southeast, Yala National

Park is the most famous. The park’s popularity comes from its diverse collection of wildlife. In Yala, a visitor can see all of Sri Lanka’s boast-worthy animals in a single park. Udawalawe sits in the dry plains and has monkeys, crocodiles, leopards, birdlife, and even large flying squirrels in addition to its elephants. “Udawalawe is one park where you can walk in any day, any time and see an elephant,” Weerakoon said of another popular preserve. “If somebody tells me, ‘Show me an elephant,’ that’s the place I will take you.” The largest congregation of Asian elephants can be found in Minneriya National Park one season a year. The park, located on the shore of an ancient reservoir built by a king more than 1,700 years ago, lies along a corridor where elephants migrate between the parks seasonally. In August and September, more than 300 elephants migrate to the Minneriya Tank. The event is marketed as “The Gathering.” This annual elephant conclave has gone on for centuries, but only more recently have tourists discovered it, which raises A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


There are more than 6,000 elephants in the island, and they are considered an endangered species. Photo by Ariel Cobbert

concerns for wildlife conservationists. They fear the added traffic could negatively affect the fragile ecosystem of the reserve and the behavior of animals within the park. Conservationists worry about safari vehicles approaching elephants too closely and disrupting feeding or mating patterns. The problem is the animals don’t always stay in the parks. When that happens, they tend to damage and destroy crops. In response, farmers attack and sometimes kill them. And once they’re gone, they’re gone. “There’s a lot of conflict, mainly with elephants and other species,” Weerakoon said. “We lose 200-plus elephants a year mainly due to conflict.” He said poaching is not as big an issue as in Africa because all African elephants have ivory tusks, but only about 50 percent of female Asian elephants — and even fewer males — have tusks. But just because the island is less attractive to poachers doesn’t mean 72 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

they aren’t here. In January 2016, the Sri Lankan government became the first in South Asia to publicly destroy a giant stack of 359 tusks confiscated from poachers — its largest ever illegal ivory haul. The valuable tusks were crushed, then burned in an incinerator. Customs officials said they were sending a message that poaching would not be tolerated. Yet, in this heavily Buddhist country, elephants remain important to temples, which use them during religious ceremonies and events. They are often chained within temples or used to dress up religious parades like the Esala Perahera, when 100 elephants are draped in colorful costumes and lights and marched through the streets of Kandy. Capturing wild elephants has been banned for decades, but for just as long, an elephant in the backyard has been a sign of wealth, privilege and power. They are frequently used in weddings.

Authorities have cracked down in recent years, confiscating dozens of elephants whose owners had no permit. There are more than 6,000 elephants on the island, which considers them an endangered species. With the abundance of wildlife and wildlife issues, comes an abundance of conservation efforts. One of the leading conservation groups in Sri Lanka, and arguably the world, is the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society. SLWCS’s mission is to help communities continue economic development while protecting the ecosystem. Chinthaka Weerasinghe is the operations manager at SLWCS. “(The) majority of tourists that come to Sri Lanka are the sun, fun, and beach crowd,” Weerasinghe said. “Slowly and gradually, we are attracting tourists who are interested in observing the amazing natural wonders the country has, including its wildlife.” With this much wildlife, of course,

there are occasional risks, especially for tourists who get a bit too casual. In September, Paul McLean, a 24-year-old British journalist for the Financial Times, left a popular surfing beach and ventured half a mile inland to relieve himself, afterward washing his hands in a coastal lagoon. A crocodile attacked, pulling him to the bottom of the lagoon, where he drowned. Crocodiles have also attacked fishermen. Earlier this year, a crocodile attacked an elephant. And in May, authorities issued an ominous warning: beware of stray crocodiles in areas inundated by the heavy rains. Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka is special because nearly 90 percent of its wildlife is unique to the country, meaning it cannot be found anywhere else in the world because it has been evolving for millennia. About 65 percent of its reptiles, 86 percent of its frogs, and 33 species of its birds are unique to Sri Lanka, he said. “This is one of the reasons why we’re considered a hot spot,” Weerakoon said. “Because we have so many that

are unique. If we lose them, the whole world loses them. That puts a lot of pressure on us.

“THERE’S A LOT OF CONFLICT, MAINLY WITH ELEPHANTS AND OTHER SPECIES.” - deevaka weerakoon “Compared to the size of landmass, the country harbors an extraordinarily rich biodiversity,” he said. “Even the territorial waters are rich with marine life and have one of the largest concentrations of blue and sperm whales and a large number of other whales and dolphin species.” Weerasinghe said organizations such as SLWCS fill a crucial role of mediator

between wildlife and humans. The organization’s motto is “Empowering people, saving wildlife.” “It is not a matter of wildlife and people learning to coexist peacefully; it is just people learning to coexist with wildlife,” Weerasinghe said. “Otherwise, there is no way that we can provide protection to a vast number of animals and their habitats.” Tourists can volunteer with conservation groups or visit places such as the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage that house orphaned or injured elephants. Others join guided safaris in national parks to photograph animals or camp out overnight. With the exception of farmers whose crops get munched or trampled, the people of Sri Lanka are famously fond of their wildlife. They are also fond of what it can do to their wallets. It takes only a cursory glance at the many safari ads in tourist magazines to see just how much Sri Lanka’s people and wildlife are intertwined. And how the island makes the most of it.

SRI LANKA’S Wildlife

This water monitor is one of many species endemic to Sri Lanka. Photo by William H. Kelly III

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Lockwood applauds the country and its government for its longstanding dedication to preserving land for wildlife and plant life unique to the island. Photos by Marlee Crawford

REPLANTING HIS ROOTS To Ian Lockwood, teaching what he loves about Sri Lanka’s landscape is a lot like heaven on earth.


Story by MacKenzie Ross

alking down an outside hallway, listening to exotic birds chirp and watching monkeys swing from one branch to another in the courtyard, he unlocks his classroom door and examines an empty room, imagining what it’ll look like the following day as students from all over the world gather at one school. For American Ian Lockwood, an environmentalist at heart, it’s a perfect place to teach, surrounded by nature and shaded by mammoth banyan trees so ubiquitous in this part of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city by the sea. After living in several places around Asia, Lockwood, 47, has found home as a teacher at The Overseas School of Colombo, where students represent 40 nationalities and where he is able to share his fascination with this fertile island’s abundant flora and fauna. He doesn’t just preach in the classroom. He takes them to a rain forest loaded with rare plants to see for themselves. “You can ask my students,” Lockwood says. “The happiest times for them are not inside this classroom, it’s going out into different areas in Sri Lanka, learning about the environment. We go to different ecosystems on the island and that’s where 74 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

some of the most important learning happens.” Sri Lanka isn’t new to Lockwood, who arrived in 2005, after the deadly tsunami that claimed 35,000 lives and which his parents, on the beach at the time, “miraculously escaped.” Even before that, his grandparents were missionaries as early as the 1920s in Jaffna, a provincial capital of 88,000 in the north. As a child, he was captivated by their fascinating tales of this ancient civilization and joined his family for a trip there in 1978 to see where his family had worked. “We have old family roots here. We have this connection to Sri Lanka and I think that is why I came back here to live … I have always felt very much at home here,” he said. Born in the U.S., he spent his early childhood in Kansas and Bangladesh, followed by studies in south India and Ohio, but he finally gave in to the siren call of Sri Lanka. He quickly found that this was the place he needed to be. “I got interested in environmental issues as a kid when adults took me hiking. I didn’t realize you could make a career by having so much fun and going outside,” said Lockwood. With classes of no more than 15 culturally diverse students from all over the world, Lockwood tries to keep lessons

interesting by not only covering Sri Lanka but other Asian countries. He teaches human geography and environment systems to 11th- and 12thgraders. It figures that Lockwood is in charge of the school’s recycling program, encouraging students to reduce solid waste on campus, including the cafeteria, and urging the school not to use disposable items. He hopes his international students can take back what they learn to their own countries and share it.“In the future, I want them to have a much greater sense of awareness of the best things of the country,” said Lockwood. About 75 percent of the student body is made up of international students. Some are from next door in India but others have traveled farther for an exclusive education including the rich culture and history of Sri Lanka. Native Sri Lankans make up the other 25 percent. “I enjoy teaching Sri Lankans,” Lockwood says. “In a sense, I have the privilege of showing them their own country – aspects of their country that they may not have been aware of. It is fun for me to be able to do that.” Despite Sri Lanka’s reputation as a land of ethnic tension, Lockwood says, “There is a rich tradition of tolerance, of accepting diversity. The wealth of the country is to accept each other’s religions. Our school and me personally are really involved in that.” Lockwood applauds the country and its government for its longstanding dedication to preserving land for wildlife and plant life unique to the island. About 15 percent of Sri Lanka is set aside for wildlife preserves and protected natural areas. He says that compared to other Asian countries, Sri Lanka does a “remarkable” job, especially for being such a small island.“Sri Lanka is quite unique,” Lockwood says. “The Indian subcontinent is so diverse. There’s a lot on this small island where land is so scarce.” The one concern that nags at him is garbage. Walking the streets of Colombo and other cities, it is easy to spot garbage bags everywhere. In Colombo’s many

narrow alleys, there are garbage bags crammed into small balconies and stuffed in corners. Rats run freely in the streets.

“there IS A RICH TRADITIoN OF TOLERANCE, OF ACCEPTING DIVERSITY. tHE WEALTH OF THE COUNTRY IS TO ACCEPT EACH OTHER’S RELIGION.” - IAN LOCKWOOD The strong smell of weeks-old trash lingers. Lockwood says that the lack of attention to garbage leads to health

problems, including dengue fever, which plagued Sri Lanka this summer and fall. Combatting the spread of dengue and malaria, both mosquito-borne diseases, is as simple as cleaning up cities, efficiently picking up garbage and getting rid of old tires and other places where stale water sits, creating perfect breeding pools for the pesky insects. “[Government officials] don’t know how to deal with it,” Lockwood says. “It’s a problem that is easily addressed. It’s something I have been dealing with in my own home. The government has to play a role but citizens also have to be aware.” Lockwood says Sri Lankans are very open and friendly and he wants to grow even closer to the country. For English speakers, that can be hard to do, but he knows that learning the local languages is key so he works on learning Sinhala and Tamil. “I recognize that the more I can do with that, the more I can experience and the deeper I can go with the country,” he said.

Ian Lockwood found a home at the Overseas School of Colombo.

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Sri Lanka ranks 15th in the world in biodiversity per land area. Photos by Marlee Crawford

The Garden of Eden A paradise of rare plants collides with farmers who need land, loggers who need trees. Something has to give.


Story by Marisa Morrissette

his fertile land of lavish greenery has become one of the world’s top biodiversity hot spots, home to hundreds of plants found nowhere else on earth. Of the island’s 3,210 flowering plant species, 916 are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Sri Lanka. The island is awash in orchids, with 74 endemic species and others considered extremely rare. The rare daffodil orchid, found in the central highlands, grows here but has become increasingly hard to find as a result of increased collection and deforestation. There are many trees, mosses and ferns found nowhere else as well. Sri Lanka ranks 15th in the world in biodiversity per land area. Even when competing with mega-countries like the United States and Brazil that have a much larger land area, Sri Lanka remains a top 25 country for biodiversity. It is an old, unfortunate truth: Once discovered, a natural paradise is often threatened. Sri Lanka is no different. Its natural beauty has long been under siege, its dense rain forests and government-protected parks and preserves in constant danger of encroachment from illegal farmers and loggers. As late as the 1920s, half the island was still under forest cover, but by 2005, this had fallen by about 26 percent as development, sprawling tea plantations, rice farms and logging operations whittled away at it. Between 1900 and 2000, Sri Lanka lost an average of 26,000 hectares

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(about 66,224 acres) of forest a year. Today, about 30 percent of the island is forested and a small amount – 412,000 acres – is considered primary forest, the most biodiverse form. Fortunately, the loss of tree cover has slowed to a near halt thanks to tough conservation laws and an aggressive forestry program designed to protect woodlands. As lumber production grows, forest cover shrinks. A part of the widespread deforestation came as population growth accelerated the need for housing and fuel, driving the lumber industry to feed on the wealth of the island’s native trees. The island is home to ebony, mahogany, satinwood and teak, many of which are utilized for furniture production. The industry is primarily harbored in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa. The island also possesses a large quantity of rubber trees that are not native to Sri Lanka, but the industry still accounts for a large portion of the country’s exports. It is a perfect example of the constant conflict plaguing a country whose economy depends so heavily on an industry that has the potential to destroy what makes it unique. Other industries have put pressure on forests as well. The country’s top export, tea, is a major thread in the fabric of Sri Lankan economics and culture. Tea is not native to Sri Lanka. It was planted by a Scotsman named James Taylor in the mid-1800s, when the island was a part of the tea-conscious British Empire, and the industry has prospered ever since.

“Our culture depends on the tea,” said Madawa Marasinghe, manager of the Kadugannawa Tea Factory in Kandy. It is so popular here that the average Sri Lankan drinks around seven to eight cups of tea per day, according to Malki Perera, a 22-year-old guide at Kadugannawa. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest tea exporters. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Sri Lanka exported $1.22 billion in tea in 2015 compared to China’s $1.17 billion. The OEC also reported that tea makes up more than 10 percent of the country’s exports. Tea plantations draw tourists. People from around the world travel to experience the lush green terraced hillsides that resemble giant wedding cakes. The experience gives tourists a window into a major slice of Sri Lankan identity. Yet the vast terraced tea plantations have gobbled up forest land and hampered efforts to save endangered plants by cultivating them on new lands. The government knows its plants and forests are special. People lovingly refer to their island as the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. They consider the landscape so important that Article 28, Section (f ) of the country’s constitution states that a Sri Lankan’s duty is “to protect nature and conserve its riches.” In 1994, the government drafted the National

Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan with the help of multiple organizations including state agencies, non-government groups, and university professors. The plan’s main objective was to put an end to timber felling in wet zone forests, including the Sinharaja rain forest, and put 13 wet zone forests under complete protection. In 2016, the United States Agency for International Development analyzed Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. USAID found that while the government should closely monitor minor threats to forest cover, the outlawing of logging in wet zones and other areas has kept forest cover fairly steady over the last 20 years. For residents of the island, such threats do not go unnoticed. “There’s small encroachment in different places,” Ian Lockwood, an American environmentalist and elementary school teacher in Colombo, said. Lockwood said Sri Lankans understand the importance of conservation. “A lot of hotels are actually very ecofriendly here. Most hotels are conscious of the local flora and fauna,” he said. Above all, Lockwood stressed the importance of never being complacent. He preaches conservation in his classroom and aims to teach his students about the natural riches their island has to offer. “It’s about education,” he said.


BEDi - Del (Artocarpus nobilis)

Bin-siyambala (Cassia kleinii)

Also known as Ceylon breadfruit, an evergreen tree found in the southwest that can grow 25 feet high. Used to treat worm diseases.

A rare legume.



(Osbeckia octandra)

(Neolitsea cassia)

A green plant with fruit or encapsulated seeds. Used in Ayurveda medicine to treat diabetes, hepatitus and jaundice.

A tree with thick gray bark. Its bark and leaves are used for medicinal purposes, and its extract is sometimes used in aasmi, a sweet local drink.

Of the island’s 3,210 flowering plant species, 916 can be found nowhere else in the world. Here are a few examples.







(Trichadenia zeylanica)

(Calamus rivalis)

(Walidda antidysenterica)

(Calophyllum walker)

(Mengifera zeylanica)

(Garcinia quaesita)

A green plant in the forests.

A variety of palm.

Plant used to treat glut motility disorders; juice also used in wall plaster. Also known as coral swirl or tellicherrybark.

A reddish brown flowering plant with dark streaks that grows in the hills. It becomes a strong, durable wood that can be used in beams, rafters, posts and door frames.

Wild mango tree in the dry zone.

A flowering plant also known as red mango, bridleberry, and Indian tamarind.

Source: Endemic Plants in Sri Lanka, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka Graphic by Ethel Mwedziwendira Illustrations by Marisa Morrissette

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


at the mercy of the Wind Sri Lanka’s southwest monsoon season is a blessing … and a cursE.


Story by William H. Kelly III

n the hill villages of southwest Sri Lanka, people have learned to both love and fear monsoon season. It can bring moisture vital to the crops and native plants that give the region its lush look. But it can also give birth to so much rain that mudslides bury entire villages. That is what happened May 26, when water came rushing down from high peaks in the interior. More than 200 people died when already saturated soil separated from hillsides and a flood of mud 30 feet deep destroyed everything in its path. A monsoon is not a torrential rainstorm, as conventional wisdom would have it. It is actually a wind that affects large areas and reverses direction seasonally. It can, of course, trigger conditions that lead to rainstorms. In fact, monsoon winds produce wet and dry seasons in Sri Lanka, India and the rest of southern Asia. “It is what we have to live with,” shrugged Saresh Singh, a farmer on the lower slopes near Barudaliya where killer mudslides are a fact of life. “It is part of our culture. It is part of who we are. Really, we can’t live with it and we can’t

A monsoon is not a torrential rainstorm, it is actually a wind that affects large areas and reverses direction seasonally. Photos by William H. Kelly III

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live without it.” Thamara Weerasinghe, a microbiologist at the Open University of Sri Lanka in Colombo, said monsoons bring levels of moisture that are vital to the soil and environment. There are two very different monsoon seasons on this teardrop-shaped island. From May to September, the southwest monsoon can trigger heavy rains in the southwestern area of the country, known to locals as “the wet zone.” So wet, in fact, that it can produce rainfall in excess of excess of 110 inches. The northeast monsoon (December to March) can produce dry weather. In between are two periods known as intermonsoons, according to Sri Lanka’s Department of Meteorology. The first intermonsoon season runs from March to April. The second takes place in October and November and it produces peak rainfall, normally heavy thunderstorms. This is the season that is hit by tropical depressions and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, when the whole country can be walloped by strong winds and



Can trigger rainfall in excess of


Can produce rainy dry weather





110 inches in the southwest

Can produce heavy rainfall

FIRST INTERMONSOON Source: Sri Lanka Department of Meteorology

Produces heavy thunderstorms. This season can see depressions and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, producing strong winds and long-lasting rainfall

SECOND INTERMONSOON Graphic by Ethel Mwedziwendira

widespread, long-lasting rain, sometimes leading to floods and landslides. It all depends on where you are. And when. In the capital city of Colombo, about 75 miles north of where the most recent mudslides occurred, there has been little concern lately about monsoon rains. They get rain during the southwest monsoon season, but it comes and goes and is often of short duration. Ian Lockwood, an environmentalist who teaches at a school for international students in Colombo, has taken note of the rainfall patterns in and around the capital. “Here, the monsoon season is very different from other parts of South Asia. Here in Colombo, the weather doesn’t change that much during the year,” Lockwood said. “The monsoon is more a broad seasonal shift in rainfall patterns and it peaks in May and June and that’s it. People ask, ‘Is this monsoon season?’ and I say, ‘Yes it is.’ ‘But it’s not raining!’” In the nation’s farm belts, the lack of rain has led to desperation, not exactly what an ordinary observer might

Monsoons can trigger conditions that lead to rainstorms.

expect from a place with monsoon seasons. In fact, Sri Lanka’s farms have been crippled by the island’s worst drought in 40 years. It ravaged the country last year and even the May downpours that triggered mudslides weren’t nearly enough to replenish reservoirs. The rice crop – a vital food source for Sri Lankans – has been devastated. Production is expected to drop by 40 percent and many small farmers are barely feeding their families. Weerasinghe noted that rice is the “main staple food in Sri Lanka” and it depends on seasonal rainfall, as do other plants. And with reservoirs so low there is little water for irrigation. It is so bad, she said, that farmers are abandoning their rice paddies. “We will be facing lot of issues. …The country is getting ready for that, actually. We have been making lot of adaptable varieties and organizing other mechanisms to live with less water and all that. … But it will be a great trouble for us,” she said. And the dry season is not far off. A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


The ancient lighthouse still stands at the venerable Dutch fort. Photo by Marlee Crawford

Story by Ethel Mwedziwendira


he mighty tsunami that claimed upwards of 4,000 lives in neighboring Galle scarcely scuffed the heels of this proud little port town that is a repository of so much history. The reason: The old Dutch fort’s 17thcentury ramparts of granite and coral. Towering waves threw themselves against those rugged walls time and again and fell back, defeated. Once more, the massive, muddy-brown, 3-foot-thick bastion that stretches for 1.8 miles had stood the test of time, protecting all 130 acres of Galle Fort from a rampaging force of nature that killed more than 35,000 across Sri Lanka. Built to withstand cannon fire, it became the ultimate wave breaker,

80 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

saving the little community within from devastation. This is a place that knows how to survive. The harbor had been attracting traders, sailors and explorers for centuries before the Portuguese built a makeshift fort of palm trees and mud on a rocky promontory here in 1589. The harbor appears on Ptolemy’s world map of 125-150 A.D. Marco Polo is said to have visited, along with trading ships from Greece, China, Arab nations and elsewhere. When the Dutch seized the fort in 1640, they ridiculed the flimsy Portuguese fortifications and erected their own larger, stronger fort. The Dutch weren’t planning on leaving anytime soon so its imposing ramparts were built to last.

And last they have. The British took over in 1815, made a few modifications and left in 1948. The harbor’s influence waned when Colombo became England’s main port of operations, but the old Dutch walls of Galle Fort still stand. They encircle an intriguing community like no other in Sri Lanka, full of Dutch Burghers, Germans, Spaniards, Moors, native Sri Lankans and architecture that is a mixture of Asian, Dutch and English. Facing the sea, the fort community is surrounded by the much larger city of Galle (population 100,000-plus). During the tsunami, Galle could have used those Dutch ramparts, atop which residents like to hang out – strolling in the evening breeze, flying kites, leaping into the crashing waters below for tourist dollars. Thanks to those walls, through natural disaster and war, Galle Fort has remained

THE TIME FORTRESS Galle Fort is a living museum, a little piece of Europe in Sri Lanka.

With more tourists coming to the island, business is picking up. Photo by Ariel Cobbert

the same even with an influx of investors who would like to make the city more modern, more commercial. Heritage and history, however, are what drive and unite the town. It is packed with historic sites, so many that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a veritable living museum. There’s the old Dutch Reformed Church, built on the site of a former Portuguese convent in 1755, ancient cannons and the old Dutch powder magazine, the 1882 clock tower where a Dutch belfry once stood, the Dutch government house, the popular Amangalla Hotel built for the Dutch governor in 1684, austere white Anglican churches, pastel Iberian mansions with terra-cotta tiles, Buddhist shrines. Want more history? There are museums a-plenty scattered along this

warren of narrow streets, including the Galle National Museum stuffed with archaeological and anthropological exhibits, the National Maritime Archaeology Museum in a former Dutch warehouse, and the Historical Mansion Museum full of antiques in an old Dutch house. “There’s heritage here,” said Samsudden Cassin, who has lived here his whole life. He’s worked long and hard to keep the family business alive. “For over 30 to 40 years” he has sold tablecloths to make a living. Like so many others here, the business has been passed down from generation to generation. He targets tourists to make ends meet, selling cloths of different colors and fabrics. With more tourists coming to the island, business is picking up for Cassin.

He likes to say he depends on luck and traffic and right now, plenty of tourist traffic is finding its way to Galle Fort. He is seen every morning until dusk situated right across the rampart. He’s also a storyteller. Some call him a historian. Despite his old age and his daughter being away at college, the thought of retirement has not once crossed his mind. He shares often how much he loves the city and its heritage. “We are family here,” he said. *** There is a strong and deep connection among Galle Fort’s diverse citizenry. The love of history and the fact that the fort is a melting pot is a source of great pride. Diagonally across from Cassin’s shop on Rampart Street is a store where the amiable, bearded Ahamed Hassen has A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


been a jewelry and antique salesman since 1959 focusing more on gems than antiques. He was born and raised in this town of many cultures. Raised by Muslims and taught by Catholics, Hassen says the extraordinary mix makes this place special. “We have the Sinhalese, the Muslims, the (Dutch) Burghers.” It’s that delicious mix of people and cultures that has kept him here even through the tough times. When Hassen was in his 20s, his parents got sick. He quit school to care for them. He wanted to be a mechanic but somewhere along the way he stumbled upon the world of gemstones and was fascinated. Meanwhile, after being told that he would be better off making a living as a painter than as a mechanic, he decided to settle for sales. He collected antiques, opened his store. But the fascination with gems continued to grow. He wondered for years what attracted people to them. Why did they

love them so? Why spend hard-earned money on shiny baubles? It became an obsession. “That was my question. ‘Why do people wear gems?’” said Hassen. Finally, through his extensive reading about gems and theories behind them, he came upon a set of beliefs. “All stones have energy. I worked on it [the gem craft] and then I developed more of an interest in the healing powers of gems.” His love for gems and his own theories about healing have drawn international attention in the gem world, winning him speaking appearances as far away as Austria to discuss the gem process and the deeper meaning behind the stones’ colors. There are 200 gemstones in the world, and Sri Lanka’s soil produces a large percentage of that – having more than 75 different types. Most are found in the hillsides, not along the sandy coast. Some students of history may be outraged at more than three centuries of


Photos by Ariel Cobbert Samsudden Cassin sells tablecloths for a living. He has depended on the kindness of tourists for 30 to 40 years.

82 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka

colonial rule and exploitation of Sri Lanka. Not Hassen. If it had not been for the Dutch and the British coming to the island, the people of Galle Fort would not be where they are today, he said. And neither would his business. Or his love for jewels. “The Dutch have done something good for us. And so did the British with Sri Lanka.” Despite the harsh conditions that came with colonialism, the salesman says Sri Lanka owes its economy to the Dutch and British. They even brought Ceylon tea to the island, he says. He hopes that business in Galle Fort will only get better and the community will always cling to the heritage that makes it unique. It all goes back to love. “For everything you must have the ambition and the liking of the job,” Hassen said. “And in this world, we have to show living things that we are kind. That we love everything in this world.”

“ ...in this world, we have to show living things that we are kind. That we love everything in this world.� - Ahamed Hassen

A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Try It. You’ll like it. Foodies are flocking to sample this spice island’s unique tastes. Story by MacKenzie Ross

A dish of cumin powder beckons from a spice shop. Photo by Ariel Cobbert


’m strolling down the buffet line, trying to understand the food choices by their unfamiliar names, sometimes guessing by color and smell. I consult a fellow tourist. Not sure. With high hopes, I shove food on my plate and move on to the next option. Finally returning to my table, I dig into this mystery meal, hoping that it isn’t too spicy or different tasting for this picky eater. In Sri Lanka, a spice island if there ever was one, the flavors are different. So are the colors. There a zillion spices in the country and they are used on just about everything you can eat. You may order grilled grouper and find it covered with a thick red spice. It’s much the same with plain old chicken. But hey, these people know their spices and they know what they’re doing. Is it good? Ask the locals. Ask the tourists. You may be surprised to hear similar answers. “The spice does not bother me,” Mathuga resident Dinesha Kumari said. “It adds a tasty change to foods like rice.” Whether in the capital of Colombo or


LEFT: With colonialism and influences from China, United States and India, fusion dishes are more common than ever before. Photo by William H. Kelly III . MIDDLE: Fish is a staple of the Sri Lankan diet. Photo by Marlee Crawford . RIGHT: Ceylon cinnamon sticks on display from a spice shop in Galle Fort. Photo by Ariel Cobbert.

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in a more rural area, the pickiest of eaters can find food tailored towards American tourists while in Sri Lanka. Spice is in everything, so whether checking out the buffet at your hotel or after looking at topranked restaurants online, ask your server what to expect when trying new foods. Even the least adventurous eaters may discover that after a while, the hot, spicy taste grows on you. “I grew up in a home where we always had spice,” American-born Colombo resident Ian Lockwood said. “Sri Lankan food is pretty spicy but the hardest part is traveling to somewhere where it isn’t so hot. What do you do when you go somewhere and the food is bland? When traveling in the U.S. this summer, we carried around small chili packs,” he said. Tourists looking to dig deep into Sri Lankan food can find family-owned restaurants on almost every street. Small grocery stores are also easily accessible for snacks. Genetically modified foods were banned in Sri Lanka in 2001 so when compared to snacks found in America, there are healthier options here. If you are looking for more food options, be ready to spend money. Googling “fine dining in Sri Lanka” will take you to many restaurants and grills located in some of the country’s most upscale hotels. Visitors can choose between rooftop lounges or elaborate buffets on the beach. No matter your preference, you can expect to spend $20 or more on these meals. Stuck between the ocean and the busy city streets of Colombo is Galle Face Green, a stretch of lawn occupied by both locals and visitors looking to purchase food from vendors in tents or take a stroll by the water at sunset. The regal Galle Face Hotel nearby, built in 1864 when the British occupied the country, is known for its lavish guest rooms as well as its restaurant and bar and the buffet on the seaside terrace.

“We serve food options including American during our lunch hours, then more Sri Lankan options for dinner,” said Galle Face Hotel buffet chef Suresh Liyanage. Mount Lavinia Hotel is another elegant antique in the heart of the capital. In the

“SRI LANKAN FOOD IS PRETTY SPICY BUT THE HARDEST PART IS TRAVELING TO SOMEWHERE WHERE IT ISN’T SO HOT.” - IAN LOCKWOOD white and shiny foyer, visitors are greeted by doormen decked out in white uniforms including above-the-knee shorts and tall socks. Once the mansion of an English governor, Thomas Maitland, the hotel is named after Maitland’s secret lover, a local dancer named Lovina. Now it serves tourists from all over the world. Australian chef and media personality Peter Kuruvita was so intrigued by the food options here, it inspired his first cookbook. “They have one of the best Sri Lankan buffets I’ve ever had,” Kuruvita said. When driving around town, Americans addicted to fast food can easily spot familiar restaurants including Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. Some food options are similar to what we are used to but there are also other things, including more dishes of chicken rather than beef. “KFC and Pizza Hut are delicious and have good service,” says Kumari.

These dishes are not only for tourists. On a regular Wednesday night, locals pack the joints. It isn’t unusual to see Sri Lankans eating in obvious tourist haunts. “The locals come here, too,” said Pavithra Ranasingha, bartender and cook at Mosvold Villa in Ahangama. “They usually order Sri Lankan food but at lunch they sometimes order American food.” On this island in the Indian Ocean, fresh seafood is a staple. Travel blogger Mark Wiens of Migrationology recently created a list of top dishes to try while in Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, seafood dominated the list. As the island’s reputation for exotic food has spread, travel bloggers have made the pilgrimage to cities such as Colombo to sample fresh seafood like crab, fish, prawns and lobster, often spiced in the Sri Lankan way. Kanrin Beach Hut is one of the city’s seafood restaurants where menus aren’t provided. Instead, a server brings out a platter full of options so customers can easily pick from the selection. It’s only natural that an island would serve a lot of seafood, especially along its coasts. After all, Sri Lanka’s seafood sector has given the island’s economy a boost. In the aftermath of a three-decade civil war, there has been a continual rise in tuna fishing. Sri Lanka is expanding its exports of tuna with the likes of yellowfin and bigeye. The Sri Lanka Export Development Board reports that the seafood sector has grown 5 percent within the last five years with buyers flocking here from across the world, including the U.S. Other meats, including shrimp, are all exported from Sri Lanka in large numbers. And about that buffet line: At first I was put off by that yellow stuff covering the mystery meat but darn, it was good. So don’t knock it ’til you try it. In Sri Lanka, sometimes, the weirdest-looking options are the best. A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


86 Ole Miss in Sri Lanka



Photo by Ariel Cobbert

By Will Norton Jr.

A year and a half ago I asked Bill Rose to lead a Depth Reporting project in Sri Lanka before his December retirement. He shook his head and looked at me in disbelief. “I can’t go,” he said emphatically. “I won’t be able to find food I can eat.” Bill is on a limited diet and his food options are minimal. I knew that, but I thought we could find food he could eat. Clearly, asking him to travel halfway around the world on a 10-day class project was outrageous. However, I needed someone who had previously taught depth reporting. I needed an experienced journalist to lead this big project. I knew about the great possibilities for a publication on Sri Lanka. However, I realized we probably were going to have to cancel the trip if Bill could not go. That is why I also was so dejected after he turned us down. However, a week or so later, Bill walked slowly into my office.

“I’ll go,” he said. I was exuberant. I knew we would have a good product. I also knew that Bill would pay a price for his unselfishness. Indeed, several times there was virtually nothing he could eat. Moreover, there sometimes were too many hours between meals. Yet Bill never complained. The students saw his unselfishness. They saw that Bill put students and the project before his own basic needs. This has been Bill’s lifestyle as a journalist and as a professor. He spends untold hours with each student. He guides him or her through long hours of initial drafts and rewrites. As a result, countless students have told me how grateful they are to have had an opportunity to be on reporting trips with him. He did not merely teach students how to write. He taught them how to live. A struggle for the soul of sri lanka


Non-Profit: Org. U.S. Postage PAID Permit No. 66 Oxford, MS 38655

University of Mississippi students and faculty in Colombo, Sri Lanka. FRONT ROW: Savannah Smith, Baylee Mozjesik, William H. Kelly III, Lana Ferguson, Ariyl Onstott. SECOND ROW: Slade Rand, MacKenzie Ross, Marlee Crawford, Ariel Cobbert, Marisa Morrissette, Ethel Mwedziwendira, Bill Rose. NOT PICTURED: Will Norton Jr., Ji Hoon Heo. Photo by Ji Hoon Heo

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