A stream of tuk-tuks barred our passage into the lane and we waited in the market for an age before we could get through. Later, we discovered that the police had used the lane as a depot for traffic cleared in the wake of an emergency: several truck-loads of explosives had been found – enough to obliterate most of Colombo, it was suggested – and one cache had been uncovered in the next suburb. Now I remembered that I’d seen a policeman dragging his wooden pole along the drains, checking for explosives. I hadn’t really registered it at the time: it’s a common enough sight in Sri Lanka these days. Since the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa took power two years ago, the 2002 ceasefire has become steadily more fictitious.

A few weeks before my arrival in June, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), who are fighting for an independent homeland for the minority Tamils in the far north and east of the island, had managed to get airborne and dropped some crude bombs on two fuel facilities around Colombo. The aerial threat itself was minimal, but the fear was lasting.

In the newspapers the UK was as usual being criticised for being soft on terror. It had suspended some aid, and Tony Blair wrote to the president expressing anxiety that the government was escalating hostilities in an unwinnable war and failing to protect human rights. (I hope he had to wrestle with the irony for at least a second or two before he signed this letter.)

The war is looking a little less unwinnable now. In the intervening months, the Tigers have been driven out of their last remaining major stronghold in the east of the country and are now being pressed in the far north and apparently sustaining heavy damage at sea. But, of course, the more plausible a military solution seems in the short term, the less pressure there is on the government to attend to the underlying causes of the conflict, or to answer charges of human rights abuse, economic mismanagement and corruption.

If foreign observers remain sceptical about the long-term basis for peace, many of the Sinhalese majority have become sceptical about foreign observers. They feel aggrieved at the way the world sees their predicament as they try to face down the organisation that as good as invented the suicide bomb: the only group indeed to have succeeded in killing two heads of state by that method – Rajiv Gandhi, after he left office, and Sri Lanka’s Ranasinghe Premadasa.

In the last few years this resentment has been directed squarely at the BBC. Everyone seems to know that the BBC is intent on producing black propaganda against the Sinhalese. Nothing my wife, who is Sinhalese and works for BBC News in London, said could impinge on this belief. There have been demonstrations outside Bush House and White City by both Sinhalese and Tamil protesters, each insisting that the BBC is biased against them. Given that it is the only news broadcaster which keeps a reporter on the island full-time, perhaps it is paying a price for being the bearer of bad news. It is rarely possible to know what is going on in the war zone and all any media organisation can do is report the claims made by each side.

We did find one person who didn’t have a bad word for the BBC – but we had to go a long way to find him. I wanted to see some of the few remains of the 16th-century kingdom of Sitavaka, a couple of hours’ drive into the interior. From this stronghold a Sinhalese king had fought a brilliant campaign against the first Europeans to start interfering in the island – the Portuguese – and had nearly driven them away. We were within range of a monastery from where some mysterious documents (I considered them a bit fishy) relating to the Sitavaka kingdom had emerged in the late 1970s. We eventually found it after slowly making our way along a broken road leading up the side of a great black rock. A tall young monk, distracted by his mobile phone, asked us to wait for the head monk, who was having a bath. A diffident figure in a reddish-brown robe then appeared, ignoring us at first but happy to show us around when approached. He wouldn’t let us take any pictures, though: they had been burgled several times.

He led us into the inner sanctum of the temple, where there lay a large statue of the reclining Buddha. This is one of the most human and pleasing of religious images: a man filled not with righteousness or divine passion, but so completely at peace that it is almost as if he were falling asleep. In fact, the Buddha reclines not to sleep but to die. And this one’s eyes were cracked – gouged out by thieves looking for gems, the monk said. On the documents he could offer nothing new: the head monk from that time was dead and their secret had died with him. When the BBC was mentioned, he said that he listened to the Sinhala World Service. Perhaps he was too far along the path to enlightenment to express any of his less compassionate thoughts on the subject.

The BBC, like the post-tsunami NGOs and even the Norwegian peace-brokers, is suspected because it is an outsider. The Rajapaksa government may not have started the present round of hostilities – it was provoked by the Tigers, who seem to have used the ceasefire to regroup and rearm – but it has set the tone of discussion here, with its paranoid comments about the Tigers infiltrating the UN, the open-season declared on foreign charities, its insinuations that criticism is tantamount to support for terrorism. But its behaviour too is suspect: human rights groups accuse it of being implicated in the abductions and extrajudicial assassinations carried out by shadowy paramilitary groups.

Earlier this month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, criticised the way these disappearances have disappeared into a legal and information void. The government invited her to the country but there was no chance that they would respond positively to her suggestion that UN monitors be deployed to help bridge the ‘public information gap’ and build confidence.

Sri Lankans remain exceptionally welcoming, however, just as in their day-to-day relations Sinhalese and Tamils seem to get along. People are usually delighted, if surprised, to find out that I am intending to write about the country’s past. In few other places is the past as present in people’s thoughts and words as it is here, although squeezed through the channels of the nationalist imagination. Having read the primary sources doesn’t always count for much in arguments about whether the Sinhalese or the Tamils first inhabited Jaffna, or how much damage was done by the colonial powers (Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain), or whether the island has always been governed as a unitary state.

As one might expect, the behaviour of the West since 9/11 has not helped. But the West’s ‘double standards’ shouldn’t be given undue importance. The tolerance shown to the Tamil Tigers by successive British governments has been much more damaging. When Labour finally proscribed the LTTE in February 2001 it was long overdue. Sometimes journalists in the West have come close to romanticising the Tigers. The female cadres, phials of poison draped round their necks in case of capture, are too photogenic to resist: spindly, gamine, deadly.

The notorious use of press-ganged child fighters is even more offensive. The Tigers have a nasty habit, too, of slaughtering any moderate Tamil leaders who try to engage in the democratic process. Why then do Tamil civilians tend to run for protection to the Tigers, rather than to the army, when fighting reaches their villages? Many Sinhalese deny that this is the case. But not until they realise how little many ordinary Tamils trust the government will any proposals for a peace settlement make sense. The Tigers’ brutal tactics may leave those Tamils with little choice but to support them, yet the unfortunate fact is that the LTTE has some legitimacy in their eyes.

We drove through the heart of the country to the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, which stood for a few hundred years before invading South Indians forced its abandonment. A sense of threat still hovers: drive north or east from here and you enter a more militiarised zone. On the road to Trincomalee, the scrub that once provided a habitat for elephants has been burned back so that it can’t provide cover for Tigers. Every kilometre or so there are sand-bagged checkpoints and watchful soldiers.

What strikes one in the ancient city itself is the commingling of the Buddhist and the Hindu. Dotted in among the floor-plans of grand monastic complexes and large bathing pools, meditation halls and tooth-relic temples, are shrines to Shiva and Vishnu. But you can find the same religious promiscuity everywhere you look. Some people think nothing of stopping by a Christian church and a Hindu shrine en route to a Buddhist temple. Recently, there has been a small wave of interest in Sri Lanka among political scientists intrigued by the use of the suicide bomb in a non-Islamic context. Occasionally they go astray in describing the conflict as primarily a matter of religious antagonism between Buddhists (the vast majority of whom are Sinhalese) and Hindus (a great majority of whom are Tamil). For all that nationalist belligerence goes hand in hand with a jumpy sense of protectiveness towards Buddhism the current conflict does not really originate in religious ill-feeling. The idea of sustained religious persecution makes little sense in a land in which spiritual appetite is too voracious to be curbed by orthodox divisions. More regularly, the LTTE is summoned to support the case that political instrumentalism rather than spiritual vision drives the suicide attack, but whatever the broader merits of this argument, one cannot infer a secular mindset from the bald secular objectives of the Tigers. Religious themes and imagery give a subtle layer of meaning to the rites that commemorate their fallen heroes. The role of religion in this conflict continues to confuse the monotheistic mind.

Outsiders are bound to get things wrong. But in the country itself, the terms of debate have been warped by the emotional demands of war. ‘Sane debate is impossible,’ we were told by one lawyer over dinner in a desolate hotel buffet. He had been drafted onto a panel laying out proposals for a constitutional solution to the ethnic problem. Its findings, including the suggestion of devolution, had recently been published and one expatriate group had called for the members of the committee to be publicly executed as traitors.

A spate of abductions of high-profile, wealthy Tamil and Muslim businessmen was discussed by one Sri Lankan paper, the Sunday Observer, in an article which repeated a government minister’s explanation. The opposition party leader, he said, had staged these abductions in order to embarrass Rajapaksa while he was attending a conference in Geneva. Moreover, ‘certain people have made use of the situation to free themselves from their wives . . . With the latest information technology it is not easy to distance oneself from one’s loved ones. Abduction has now become a blessing in disguise for these people.’

In such uncertain times Sri Lankans are turning increasingly to the occult in an attempt to bring some predictability and control to their lives. There is probably no place on earth that offers a greater range of supernatural services: palmistry, light-reading, deity visitations, exorcism, astrology, numerology, talismans, vows, curses, black magic (huniyam), and much more. My wife visited one of the most famous astrologers – I’ll call him Fernando – who is consulted by everyone from the president down. Visiting NGO staff also like to drop in. They may do so for a thrill, but are often aghast at the accuracy of the readings. For most Sri Lankans this is a serious business. Fernando lived up to his reputation. On receiving my wife’s report, the obsessive rationalist in me revolted, but found no immediate grounds from which to launch a critique. Anyway, my credentials had already been questioned: Fernando was not impressed on finding out I was British (‘so he must be dull and stupid then’) and a historian (‘I bet he cribs from secondary sources’). And when he found out that my wife worked for the BBC: ‘Ah, so you write lies?’

Alan Strathern

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