By Demi Perera –
Sri Lanka is open. That is what I’m telling the world in my capacity as a travel writer. Moving on from a terror attack, which is amongst the worst the world has seen, the country is facing an unequivocal truth; life must go on. Given its history of resilience life will not simply go on but it will do so with gusto. Of that I’m sure. When the church bells toll again the storm that hit will have passed to clear the way to a renewed sense of strength and togetherness amongst the people. That is the collective wish and the good news we dare to hope for.
To arrive at our figurative light at the end of the tunnel requires the acknowledgement of what transpired. The truth. That elusive Golden Snitch which is so often hard to digest. Sri Lanka has awakened to yet another new beginning. One that was brutally imposed yet withstood by a nation united in inconceivable tragedy. An act of violence that will once again change the course of the island’s history.
How is it that we find ourselves here again? Peace that cost 30 years and thousands of lives was never leveraged to build reconciliation and lay the foundations for a stable and inclusive future or all. A thing that was entirely possible in competent hands. Instead, it was squandered in a vacuum of morality and integrity. As the country fell from the corrupt and dictatorial frying pan in to the incompetent and fractured fire the welfare of the people rested on those, even at first glance, ill-suited to leadership.
Life moved on without the foresight to protect the two things that made Sri Lanka a land like no other; the land itself and its natural resources. With no regard nor an apparent understanding of sustainability fraud, constitutional crisis and chaos followed. Risky foreign investment as well as tourists flowed to the island lured by its strategic location and staggering natural beauty. Merciless gentrification along the coasts imploded at any cost. The very ground beneath our feet was trifled away as Chinese sovereign land; a betrayal that even thousands of years of colonisation had not managed to inflict on the island.
Materialism and greed masqueraded as progress was fed to a fervent population desperate for a new dawn. Anyone who dared question the Emperor’s new clothes was shut down and deemed unworthy of the prosperity that was sure to follow. Even as power changed hands the country spiralled uncontrollably downwards wrapped precariously in a questionable cloak of progress. Still, we were not to know that worse was yet to come. With a leadership distracted by nothing but their own survival the island became a haven for illicit drug runners, religious extremism and unfathomable corruption. As predictably as day follows night terror struck in a gruesome reminder that peace and the land, upon which we had placed so little value, could be snatched from under our noses.
What transpired on Easter Sunday has now been replayed a thousand times. Disbelief spread around the world as it became evident that the Sri Lankan government had multiple warnings of the imminent attacks but wasn’t compelled nor felt duty-bound to act. One blundering politician after another, in government and opposition, appeared on foreign media speaking only to further personal vendettas. It quickly became clear that there was no protocol for dealing with the crisis. The death toll continued to rise. The President remained in Singapore only arriving some ten hours later from a destination just four hours away. In a frenzy of finger-pointing, gross negligence and lack of accountability social media was shut down to control ethnic tension. Apart from deploying the military, to monitor peace, we are yet to see a decisive government policy for uniting people and moving forward beyond this colossal failure.
The resulting disarray has seen a string of predictable sporadic reactions from the banning of face coverings, curfews without prior warning and even a bungling insurance scheme for school children. None of it bearing the slightest resemblance to a cohesive strategy for dealing with a catastrophe of this magnitude. The continuing lack of competence adding to the fragility of a people desperately seeking answers while those who inevitably stand to gain from this anguish await in the wings to swoop in for the kill.
So how does all of this translate to the wider world that Sri Lanka has made its prosperity so dependent upon? Travel warnings of the highest threat level. They are not the knee-jerk reactions which they’re perceived to be but a proactive approach to protecting citizens based on intelligence. Governments do not issue them lightly. The UK Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka placing it on the notoriously nick-named no-go list. The insurance industry follows and invalidates travel insurance which covers everything from lost luggage to emergency medical assistance and repatriation; a risk very few are willing to take. Respectable travel press will not cover destinations on the list for fear of being seen to ignore Foreign Office guidelines. Needless to say travel agents will suggest safer alternative destinations to their clients. In such a climate it becomes impossible to encourage people to travel to Sri Lanka.
The way forward is in the hands of the Sri Lankan people. It’s also far simpler than we’re led to believe. Expecting tourists to ignore a travel ban and come to Sri Lanka is unrealistic and naive. Very few will do it. The world is not assured by videos of travellers claiming to feel safe in the country. The collective focus needs to shift towards influencing the ban to be lifted. On the ground this simply means unity. It’s to stand firm against those who wish to exploit differences for their own gain. It’s to build bridges towards each other. It’s the refusal to be antagonised in to rising up against your neighbour. This is the image Sri Lanka now needs to project; communities standing together in the face of adversity making the country safe, first and foremost, for its own citizens. That is the only way the world will be encouraged to return. It’s the only assurance it seeks.
For what its worth I shall carry on in the name of those whom we lost and I will never forget. As a writer, with a platform to speak to the world, I pledge to ensure that from here on this narrative will not be dominated by that which was temporarily diminished but by what unyieldingly remained. The disillusioned people who’ve long lost faith in their leaders, the Catholic Church and community who’s forgiveness for an unforgivable act has shown the world nothing less than divine mercy, the Muslim community which continues to act with grace despite the scrutiny it now finds itself under and finally those parents and children whose insufferable grief I pray I will never have to endure. For if there is martyrdom to be had I place it firmly at the feet of this country to which I owe everything.