Thursday, August 6, 2015

Sri Lanka

It may look like a can of worms, but it's actually Ceylon tea
Known as Ceylon when it was part of the British Empire, it had previously been named Thambapanni ("the land of the copper-coloured palms"), or Taprobana by the ancient Greeks, Sarandib by the Arabs (whence the English word "serendipity"), and then Ceilão by the Portuguese; when the British took the islands from them, being British they couldn't spell foreign words properly, because ultimately the British don't believe in foreign words, and so it ended up as Ceylon. Sri Lanka too is a British mis-spelling and mis-pronunciation. The Tamils call the island Ilaṅkai, the Sinhalese Sri Lamka, and yes, they are more than happy to go to war even over this.

Indeed, until very recently, Sri Lanka presented itself to the world as yet another fine example of the stupid ways that people find to hate each other, and do so simply because they can. In this case the Big Enders were the Tamils and the Little Enders the Sinhalese, who hate each other because the one likes batting but the other bowling, or is it that one is taller, or thinner, than the other, or prefers green shirts to yellow, or practises Hinduism while the other practises Buddhism, or takes mint rather than lemon in their tea.

The tea was certainly a factor when the Tamil Tigers launched their legitimate bid for self-rule in the north of the island (or their vile campaign of terror, if you take the other side) in the 1980s, because the British East India Company specialised in Ceylon tea, and the Sinhalese, or was it the Tamils, benefitted greatly from this, while the Sinhalese, or was it the Tamils, were used as virtual slave-labour, and one, or self-evidently the other, looked back nostalgically to the gloriously horrible days when the islands were ruled by Portugal and everybody was enslaved but at least it was equal, and hoped to restore them, while the other, or perhaps the one, looked back even more nostalgically (though that it is arguable; it may have been slightly less nostalgically) to the horribly inglorious days when the islands were ruled by Portugal and slavery was slavery regardless of who suffered or benefitted the most, but they too nonetheless called on the Portuguese to help during the civil war.

Both sides of course accused the other of torture and human rights abuses, while behaving like perfect cricketing gentlemen themselves - which is to say they used both sledging and match-fixing and never walked even when they knew they were out, or not until it had been reviewed and the third umpire insisted. The third umpire in this case was the United Nations, supported by an electoral commission from the Commonwealth. The decision, as far as the Sinhalese who had ruled till then were concerned, was out; for the Tamils, in, though the electoral commission noted, while still endorsing the result, that intimidation of voters was widespread, and mostly conducted as official policy by the army.

Marks For: 374 (scored by Mahela Jayawardene against South Africa in 2006, the highest test score by a Sri Lankan batsman)

Marks against: Pick any number you choose - that, after all, is what you do with serendipity. You could try 70,000, which is the number of civilians killed on both sides in the civil war. Or 250,000, which is the number of refugees still homeless. Or 0, for the number of human rights abuses admitted by either side. Or 0 again, for the chances of the current peace holding for more than another year or two.

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

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