Sunday, July 04, 2010

Sri Lanka: Please allow me a moment on my soapbox

It's a truly interesting time to visit Sri Lanka. I'm here by a happy coincidence and the generosity of my friend and his family, who have arranged for me to spend a month working in a few different hospitals here to get some experience in a different kind of medical setting. If you are desperately trying to think of where Sri Lanka is, it's a small island nation near the south-eastern coast of India. Despite popular belief, it is a sovereign nation, and is in fact very different from its larger neighbor, although its inhabitants are largely descended from Indian immigrants who came here hundreds to thousands of years ago. The clothing is similar but not the same (their saris have ruffles), the food is actually quite different (less spicy, more coconut, and more meat), and their roads are more often paved and less often clogged with cows. The major language is Sinhala, mixed with a smaller group of Tamil speakers. It's a tropical island with the associated vegetation, including 70% of the world's cinnamon supplies.

Having just in the past year emerged from thirty years of civil war colored by terrorist attacks from the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), the country is experiencing a surprisingly robust recovery. People tell me stories of taking separate buses from their spouses in case one of them didn't make it, and of relatively deserted festivals and once-bustling markets that people avoided because they never knew when to expect the next bombing. The strife started, as far as I can tell, with the British colonists (doesn't it always?). Apparently they initiated the tension between the two major ethnic groups here - the Sinhala and the Tamils - and then after they left, the new government made it infinitely worse by instituting Sinhala as the national language, thus effectively shutting down Tamil culture. Of course the Tamils responded by agitating for their own language and their own separate country, and thus began years of warfare, suicide bombings and civilian casualties. It's amazing how you can take the names of the groups away and this story just repeats and repeats around the world.

However, with the death of the LTTE leader last May, the war finally came to an end. The military has continued to expand and the streets of downtown Colombo remain somewhat deserted, with sandbagged military installations and groups of soldiers with machine guns on every corner. There are random document checks along the roads to make sure you are who you say you are, and apparently if you don't stop for them, they can shoot you without fear of repercussions.

At the same time, the bustling streets of the market area of Pettah have returned to their former liveliness. The hospital no longer receives large numbers of blast victims, and people's fear seems to have dissipated much more quickly than I would have expected. At this year's Poson festival in Anuradhapura, celebrating the bringing of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and one of the two biggest annual festivals here, there was a huge turnout of what I heard was almost 200,000 people. For the last 30 years people had largely been too scared to attend this festival, so now that it's finally safe, they turned out in droves. It was quite a sight to see, as thousands of pilgrims dressed in white flocked to ancient temples and a bodhi tree said to be over 2000 years old and grown from a cutting of the original one where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

So it would seem like a time of great opportunity for Sri Lanka, but there are some major challenges. There is a very wide gap between the rich and the poor, with the former seemingly unaware of the latter. I've been told by multiple people that no one goes hungry in Sri Lanka, but the UNDP points out that 23% of the population lives below the official national poverty level, and one out of three children is underweight and malnourished. These same people also tell me that most people have health insurance and can go to the fancy private hospitals, but they haven't seen the crowds at the government hospital, where patients are three to a bed and sleeping on the floor, and they would seem to be contradicted by the fact that Sri Lanka's infant mortality rate, a widely-used indicator of human development, is 18.6/1000 (compare this to 2.3 for the best, and 6.3 for the US). 18% of people don't have access to clean water.

Unfortunately the new leadership is proving to be corrupt, with the president favoring the rich with tax cuts on luxury vehicles and worsening the situation for the poor by increasing taxes on basic goods such as flour, rice and tea. He looks to be gearing up to try to revamp the law so that he can serve an additional term, and you know what that means. Additionally, the situation in the north, where the worst of the fighting happened, is dire, but the government is working hard to keep out any groups that might get word of the situation out to the rest of the world. I'll leave that subject for my next post, since I think it merits extra attention.

So why am I telling you this? If you are like I was two weeks ago, you have little or no idea what is going in Sri Lanka, except a vague idea of Tamil Tigers and terrorism. After spending a couple of weeks here, I think Sri Lanka is a lovely country, and the people I've met - rich and poor - are warm and friendly and extremely generous. The richer segment of the population is doing very well, but a lot of work remains to be done, particularly in the areas of health and human rights and fighting corruption. Sri Lanka, as a small, out-of-the-way country, often gets overlooked, so I'd like to encourage you to give it a moment's attention. Donate to an NGO that is providing essential services like food, clean water, health care, or medical supplies. Put pressure on your own government not to support the corrupt policies of a government trying to cover up human rights abuses. Volunteer a bit of your time to help improve the situation here by building houses, digging wells, or treating patients. Most of all, be aware of what's going on, and tell others.

By the way, I happen to be in Sri Lanka right now, but the situation here is far from unique. It's all too easy for us in the US to just sit back and remain blissfully unaware of what is happening all over the world, but it is irresponsible of us not to do something about it, even if the only thing within our means is to talk to other people so that we raise awareness. Once enough people take an interest, our government is more likely to do something about it.

Ok, I'm done with my soapbox speech for now. Next time I'll tell you a little bit about the hospital where I've been working and an organization that works with Tamil refugees in the north. I'll have a week to travel towards the end of my time here, so I'll save the sightseeing and more fun cultural details for then.

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Adventure map for 2009...