When I told my friends and family I was going to Sri Lanka I received a largely unanimous response: “Aah, what a paradise Island”. Hardly anyone seemed to be aware of the thirty year civil war, and even the rare few who did were under the impression Sri Lanka is now a thriving and successful country. In some regards this is true; Sri Lanka is a middle income country, while the recent January elections have resulted in improvements for freedom of speech amongst other civil liberties. But this Island is no paradise.
How can foreigners know better when the information readily provided by the Sri Lankan authorities portrays a country of white sands, turquoise waters and domesticated elephants ready for you to bathe with? Popular discourse would imply that Sri Lanka is, a paradise Island. Rather than focus on the preconceptions of those living outside Sri Lanka, I would like to discuss why Sri Lanka’s history has been shunned from the travel sections of our newspapers, and explore how to appropriate ‘dark tourism’ in a sensitive and respectful manner.
The darkest thing about Sri Lanka’s tourist industry is the seemingly deliberate attempt to be blind to the countries past. Travelling down the east coast, where the civil wars devastating last battles were fought, you find five star beach resorts where tourists flood to sunbeds in search of the darkest tan. Because, yes, the majority of the tourists are wealthy and light skinned; arriving from Australia, the UK, mainland Europe and, increasingly, China. China played a major role in investing in Sri Lanka’s post war tourism boom alongside Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapakse. These “zones”, often have been dedicated solely to nursing Sri Lanka’s tourist industry, hosting large luxurious hotels for tourists and government officials, whilst failing to benefit many of Sri Lanka’s citizens who still live in poverty.
Passikuda beach is a perfect example of this. Passikuda, in the heart of the east coast is a Muslim and Tamil area, which has long been a local favourite for family day trips. However, since Rajapaska’s brother chose to illegally build a five star resort on the beach Passikuda has become a microcosm for Sri Lanka’s wealth disparity. On one side of the beach are the locals, diving fully clothed into the warm shallow waters and playing the drums. Meters away is a physical divide monitored by police officers, where the foreigners sit in impossibly expensive resorts, sipping cocktails by pool sides.
There’s a high presence of police and government officers. Excluding foreigners, the tourist trade consists largely of Sinhalese men. Waiters I spoke to appeared to be exclusively Sinhalese, implying that local Tamil and Muslim residents are far from benefiting from the new job opportunities that came with the economic zones won in the bloodshed of the civil war. This land was won for Tamil people by government troops in the civil war, and now they are excluded from them, in a crude and disturbing colonization. But hey, we tourists don’t talk about that.
Yet there are hopeful rumblings of change echoing through the country. Slackened censorship laws have created a space where those who suffered in the war are becoming increasingly more free to share their experiences. With that there is an increased interest in acknowledging Sri Lanka’s turbulent past through the tourist industry.
“Dark tourism” is not a new concept. But what exactly does it mean? We can find examples of dark tourism all over the globe, in Auschwitz, Rwanda, South Africa, Cambodia and Vietnam where tourists flood to pay their respects, and educate themselves, on the troubled history of the countries they visit. Relics of the past often remain exactly as they were during conflict leaving a powerful echo that aims to memorialize and educate. Yet there are complex debates regarding how healthy this is;
Does a ‘dark’ tourist industry fetishize, as opposed to respect, memories? Whose past is remembered, and who is forgotten? Do these memorials merely keep conflicts alive?
These are big debates that deserve more than an article, so I won’t address them here. I will say, with these scepticisms in mind, that dark tourism does, at least, document lives lost to war, with the aim of preventing future conflict – which is far nobler cause than an appeal to decadence and sunburn.
Comparatively, Sri Lanka is rare example of a post-conflict nation who does not exhibit the past to outsiders. In Jaffna, the former headquarters of the notorious rebel army, the LTTE, the speedy re-development seems like it could even be a deliberate attempt to white wash memories of the war. On the train to Jaffna, Human Rights activist Ruki Fernando pointed out famous war sights, such as the A9 road, which to the naked eye appear free from any significant national history. Unbeknownst to many travellers, the train that runs from Colombo to Jaffna has massive historical significance.
Today, arriving at Jaffna’s newly built train station, one would not suspect Jaffna’s deeply disturbing past. Jaffna was, until 2010 shut off from the rest of country, and the international community. The city is has seen Sri Lanka’s most brutal battles, and allegations of war crimes, including widespread rape of Tamil women by Sinhalese government soldiers, still continue. There is something very eery walking the streets of Jaffna, in the subdued nature of the locals, the intimidatingly large presence of the military, and the barren landscape. A few houses remain covered with bullet holes, yet significant battle sites such as the train station have been swiftly demolished. Previous statues of LTTE leaders have been destroyed by the army, and pictures of the remaining stone are strongly discouraged. The only monuments left that actively memorialize the conflict is the rebuilt Tamil library which Sinhalese soldiers burnt down in an act considered by Tamils as cultural genocide, destroying thousands of irreplaceable and ancient Tamil archives. This incident is historically recognized as a precursor to the outbreak of civil war in 1983, and a direct example of state racism. Other than this library, public acknowledgement of the war is non-existent.
‘Rio’, an ice cream parlour next to the country’s largest Hindu temple is an interesting subtle tribute to the war that only Sri Lankans seem to know the significance of. Set up before the outbreak of conflict, Rio sustained itself throughout Jaffna’s exclusion from the rest of the country, using only local resources to continue making ice cream. This parlour was a monumentally important community hub, where locals would attempt to escape from the realities of war over a sickly sweet ice cream sundae. Rio is a perfect example of the nuanced shadows of history that we, visitors, often fail to see. It is important in the practice of any tourism, be it conventional or ‘dark’, to include the good, the bad and the ugly. So this summer, if you are jetting off to whatever corner of the world please take a minute to look behind the masquerade, as only then will you find a truly human face.
By Georgia Whitaker Hughes