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by Edward Marks

Written as a letter to an imaginary correspondent from his overseas postings, the author wrote a series of such “letters” from a dozen of his assignments abroad.  He pens this from an assignment to Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1986. –Ed.

After six years in Washington we were posted to Sri Lanka and arrived at Katunayake Airport in the evening, after a long flight from Hong Kong via Singapore.  The new international terminal was not (and is not yet) ready and even the best of airport terminals are a bit sad at night unless they are full of bustling crowds.    This was not the case.   The man I was replacing was there, however, so we loaded up the baggage and headed into Colombo — our new post and home.  

The drive in takes almost an hour, which is something given that the distance is only about 12 miles.   The road is narrow, lined with shops, bullocks, shrines and people, and more like a Third World High Street than the usual airport highway. We were new to South Asia and in some respects the initial impression of Colombo derived from the drive from the airport to the city was not reassuring.  The city lies in the center of over a hundred miles of semi-urban strip development along the coast and the airport road is part of that strip.   We had hoped for more glamour and development from this shift to Asia after years in Africa.  Even when we arrived in Colombo we drove to the house by back roads, which indicated that Colombo is not exactly Hong Kong or Paris.    I think I will remember to bring other new people in via the center of town and the Galle Face along the ocean.

Tired as we were, we could see that our new house was really quite nice and after a long voyage we were home again—in the way of the Foreign Service. The overwhelming impression of Colombo gained during the first weeks was that of a frantic social whirl.   At first we thought the luncheons, cocktail receptions, and dinners were due to the arrival of ourselves, and an inordinately large turnover of the Mission staff.   However, as time passed it became clear that the pace of social life in Colombo is always fast.   Sri Lankans, it seems, love to give and go to parties.   They almost always accept invitations, arrive on time  (no to be regretted Third World casualness about time here), and, interestingly enough, extend invitations at a faster rate than they accept them.   Fellow diplomats will understand the importance the of last statement; how much time has been spent in numerous capitals trying to entice the local citizenry to a) accept our hospitality,  b) thereby acknowledging our existence and c) providing satisfaction by reciprocating.   Oh, the joy in a diplomat’s breast when a local dignitary invites him to come and break bread. The Sri Lankan pleasure in a busy social round is not specifically directed towards diplomats and other foreigners.   It is clear they behave this way amongst themselves.   They like cocktail parties and dinners; they like to eat, they like to drink, and they like to talk and gossip; they like the warmth and bustle of social intercourse.   Being that way among themselves, they see no reason why foreigners in their midst should not participate.   

And so the invitations flowed in.  Every night it seemed, and often was, we went to somebody’s house to meet new people and exchange names and cards.    An exchange that soon resulted in another invitation.    All very nice of course, if eventually tiring, except that there turned out to be a saving characteristic of local socializing.   By and large after a brisk evening of socializing dinner ends with coffee, possibly a quick pousse-cafe, and then quick goodnights with everybody home by ten thirty or so. No late night Latin dinners here.

All this socializing soon created another problem.   Our social debt mounted rapidly, and we panicked at the thought of managing to repay it.  Who said a diplomat’s life is free of worry?

That the interest and enthusiasm for social life is not restricted to Colombo’s social elite—generally referred to as the Colombo 7 crowd is evidenced by an unusual project sponsored by the Prime Minister.   The third in a series of “Pradeepa Halls”  —community reception centers—was opened recently.   These are modern reception centers “replete with all facilities for the use of the public  … to provide inexpensive centers for the holding of private social functions.” These halls have VIP and bridal suites, pantries, and fully equipped kitchens with cutlery and linen.     Two of the centers are in especially built new construction while one is in the oldest existing colonial mansion left in Colombo.  They will be managed by a government catering operation and available at modest rental for the general public who cannot afford to use the expensive international class hotels. They are not located in the expensive residential areas—to the contrary—and their sponsorship is particularly interesting.    The Prime Minister is the most active practitioner of elective political campaigning in the country.    He is always out on the hustings doing the local equivalent of kissing babies and his “Million House” building scheme is generally conceded to be a major source of his political popularity.    The Prime Minister avoids becoming involved in dealing with the country’s current major political crisis    (the ethnic conflict), but instead spends his time building houses for the rural and poor urban population—and providing them with subsidized halls for “private social functions.”   As his desire to become president one day is well known, his deliberate focusing of his efforts on housing and social halls perhaps tells us something of his country: the subsidized party hall.

The enthusiasm for social activity extended to professional contacts.    Officials at all levels were easily available and open for discussion, although at the very highest levels a concern for protocol limited initiatives.    This concern existed with respect to the main Opposition party, whose two highest officials are available for calls only by Chiefs of Mission.

Conversation is as open as access. Sri Lankans are voluble conversationalists, and at least in certain circles politics are the main source of discussion.   A preoccupation with political developments is usual among politicians and bureaucrats everywhere but the openness of conversation here is notable. For instance, one of my early calls was on a Cabinet Minister.     Following the usual few minutes of introduction and “how do you like Colombo” questions, the minister moved into a detailed discussion of local politics and developments.  Although a government minister, he did not hesitate to comment critically on the Government’s policies or leaders. In fact, as the minutes passed he warmed up to his criticisms. After about an hour, it was time to go.    As I said my good-byes and expressed my appreciation for his time, the Minister suddenly looked a little puzzled and said, “By the way, whom did you say you were with?” Not that he was concerned; you understand it was just that after some satisfying political gossip, he wondered who I was.

Another striking characteristic of the local scene is the almost frenetic public appearance schedules of political figures.   Sri Lankan society in general is quite organized   in political, economic, professional, social and other societies    — from the surveyors to the Girl Guides.     These groups hold affairs all the time; annual meetings, monthly meetings, award ceremonies,   “Miss Sri Lanka” competitions, orphanage foundation laying, dam christenings and on and on.     It seems impossible to hold any of these affairs without the presence of at least one Chief Guest, usually a senior government official, most often a Cabinet Minister.  So the daily newspapers and TV news programs are never free of the familiar faces of senior politicos opening art exhibits and lighting the traditional oil lamps. Everyone appears to do it all the time, the President not the least.   In fact, he appears to enjoy it.

The pace is truly ferocious, both because the Government’s leadership believe it is necessary and because the general public appears to expect it. Certainly, this Administration is deliberately utilizing this public appearance technique to defend itself against its political enemies and to advance its policies.   The concentration of attention on the Buddhist clergy is actively pursued without any attempt at camouflage.   One of the most persistent scenes on evening TV is a Minister paying obeisance to one or more priests while handling the same priest something: a book, an award, an academic notice, title to a piece of land, a position, or a check. While the Minister bows, the Priest remains seated and accepts the presentation or gift with easy assurance and sober, expressionless face, and the onlooker is left to wonder who is conning whom.

Equally certain is the competition between the traditional secular leadership class   (dressed up in modern political dress) and the equally traditional clerical leadership class,  still  sporting both traditional robes and traditional values.   Up until quite recently, it has been assumed by both local and foreign observers that the clergy at minimum could limit or channel secular political activity.  Some doubts have arisen in the past few months whether this is still true.  Has the Jayewardene Government effectively co-opted and subordinated the clergy? Has the clergy itself become so ostentatiously secular, in contradiction to its traditional image of humility and religious virtue, that it has lost its hold over the largely rural Sinhalese population? Difficult questions, of course, which can only be answered when and if the secular and clerical leadership elites actually come into conflict.   There were signs that this event was becoming imminent in the summer and fall of 1986, but the confrontation never took place.  In retrospect it appears that the Government outmaneuvered or cowed a less than coherent clerical class, but 1987 will bring further opportunities for conflict.

At least to someone new to South/East Asia, the presence of the Buddhist monk in the public places of the society is itself striking.  This is possibly due to their striking costume; the dramatic orange robe that stands out so dramatically among both Western dressed crowds in the cities and more traditionally robed people in the countryside.  The color of the monkish robe may have been chosen as a symbol of humility but it appears to have become instead a uniform of eliteness. The monks are also ever present on local TV programs and in the newspapers so that it appears that no public ceremony of any kind can be conducted without the almost brooding presence of one or more Bikkus — as they are called.    Several characteristics of the Sri Lankan monk strike the outsider.  Although they apparently come almost completely from rural families and milieus they generally have a sleek, well-fed, confident air of the upper classes.  Even more noticeable is the masculine pride and arrogance of the young monks as they walk around the city in small groups. The arrogance of youth is combined with a clear sense of specialness and in an almost swaggering air. Their position in society, the enormous respect in which they are held clearly is the cause of this air; few human beings can resist the blandishments of social specialness.  To watch a senior and powerful government minister bow and make obeisance to a seated monk while handing him anything from a diploma to a government check, and to watch the monk acknowledge the gesture with a slight nod of the head, is to see an event of obvious significance in local society.   To a Western eye a little respect to the cloth is only good manners, even if hypocritical, but few would accept this insisted upon role of public subservience.    No wonder the young monk walks around with an air of insufferable pride.

The East—or Asia—has the reputation in the West as being the place of religions.    The normal presence of monks on the streets probably contributes to that impression, especially in contrast to Europe and the North America where professional religious have moved away increasingly from distinctive clothing.    Religiosity surfaces often here. The Ambassador was invited to an annual ceremony of the Sri Lanka John F. Kennedy Society, held on the 22nd November.   He could not make it so I went along as the official representative.   The Society has its headquarters at the home of its present  (founder, primary activist, and major supporter) in Panadura — some twenty miles down the coast.     The President of the Society, a few of his friends and relatives, the two of us from the Embassy, and a smallish crowd of about twenty locals were present. American and Sri Lankan flags were displayed (the President of the Society is a flag manufacturer and president of the Sri Lankan Flag Association). Photographs of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were displayed on a set of three stands, the total effect being that of an altar.   The appropriate national anthems were played on a cassette player, and then the local Member of Parliament and I distributed food packages to the assembled crowd of devotees. (That is why they showed up there, I suppose.)

What was most interesting was the mood of quite sincere devotion bordering on piety on the part of the President and several of his associates.      This affair was neither commercial nor cynical.   It was highly emotional and in fact partook of the religious.   In fact, I felt I was at a religious ceremony, with the spirits of the dead being honored and convoked. As I stood there, while these unkind thoughts passed through my mind, I suddenly remembered a literary model for the situation I was in.   In “Flashman and the Great Game,” the hero meets a legendary (and real) early English empire builder, Nicholson, who remarks to Flashman that he himself had become the object of a religious cult in Calcutta.  They had a temple, priests, adherents, and held regular ceremonies. He did not know quite what to make of it.

Well, I did not know quite what to make of this little Kennedy cult so I merely played my role.  After the ceremony we went into the host’s house and had quite a nice Sri Lankan curry lunch.

Sri Lanka is an old car museum mostly, but not exclusively of British models.  First of all, one notices the ever-present little Morris 1000.  It has been years that that car was seen anywhere, except in the darkest corners of the British Isles. Yet here they are, all over the streets of Colombo, mostly painted black and mostly serving as taxicabs. Every once in a while, a carefully preserved Morris sedan or convertible is seen, obviously someone’s pride and joy. But the Morris’ are only the beginning. Old Jaguar and Mercedes sedans are seen, usually from the 1960’s but sometimes a delicious old remnant of the 40’s and 5O’s, and even pre-war. Some of the older Mercedes immediately remind the viewer of World War Two movies, and you expect to see someone in black boots descend.   Then, every once in a while, even rarer ones are seen: for instance, toy-like Austin 7’s from the 30’s, and MG two-seaters from the late 40’s.  The reason for all of these older cars still in service and operating is two-fold: the economic conditions of the 1960’s and 70’s made it particularly advantageous to keep older cars running.   In addition there is nostalgia for the older days and an active interest in the older cars for themselves.   The owner of the Galle Face Hotel is very proud of a pre-war Austin owned by Prince Phillip  (bought for 15 pounds when the Prince was a young naval officer on duty in Colombo just before the war).

And sometimes the cars are family heirlooms. There is a Sri Lankan gentleman who goes out to his garage every once in a while to crank up and go for a spin in a 1914 Pipe—a Belgian manufactured car whose very name is lost to history.   Yet it still works and since his grandfather bought it during a trip to Europe, his parents took it on their honeymoon, and an uncle drove it around town until the mid-1950’s, the car is a member of the family as much as a vehicle.

A young officer in the Embassy responded to the opportunities offered by this situation to search out and purchase an MG-TD for restoration.  Inspired by his example, and an old unfulfilled passion to own a Jaguar, I followed his example and began to search for the model I wanted.  This search led to some interesting contacts as I discovered the existence of a whole sub-culture of old car buffs in Colombo.  One keeps discovering that Sri Lanka is just not your standard LDC. Anyway, my search for a Jag to restore was an interesting exercise, but as it is still underway I will let a description of it rest until another time.

Sinhalese family names are very long and quite daunting to the newly arrived foreigner: Jayewardene, Athulathmudali, Wickremasinghe, and so on.   It takes a while to get used to them, but after a few months it is possible to roll them off the tongue in a knowing way, much to the awe of casual visitors.

One day in our desultory Sinhalese language class (one hour, three times a week) someone asked our teacher (a well known local authoress who also serves as our guide to local cultural habits) what these names meant, if anything.   A fascinating hour passed as she broke these multisylabic monikers down and explained their origin and sense.  It turned out that they all in fact were constructed phrase names of definite meaning.   What was even more fascinating is that these names fit into a pattern, and a similar one at that. The pattern is that of the type of titles and class of a land-owning political and military elite of a pre-industrial feudal society. And these names have exact parallels in European history.

The old Sinhala family names, therefore, are in reality titles reflecting the positions, awards and honors of a leadership class.    Since a land based feudal aristocracy is exactly a reasonable description of traditional Sinhala society, this observation should come as no surprise. An amusing touch to this situation was to discover that another parallel with Europe exists in Sri Lanka.  After the Resolution (the French one that is), pushy members of the new middle classes and other arrivistes took to adopting the traditional signs of nobility: the von in Germany, and the de in France.  A similar development took place in Ceylon, as it was then known, after the fall of the last Sinhalese royal house with the British overthrow of the Kingdom of Kandy.  Soon after, non-aristocratic Sinhalese families began to adopt the old aristocratic Sinhalese family names. So just as in Europe, the locals may know who the real Old Regime aristocrats are, but to us foreigners a Sennanayake is a Sennanayake.

Sri Lanka’s economic statistics are misleading. The conventional per capita GNP figures are for a relatively poor LDC, somewhere in the neighborhood of Haiti and The Sudan.    Yet only a few days of looking around produces enough anecdotal information to make it clear that this economic indicator is misleading. To be fair, almost all commentators also point out those important quality of life figures—education and literacy, health, and average life expectance—lead to a completely different judgment. The fact is that Sri Lanka is a statistically poor country but also one with a relatively well off population. There is no grinding poverty to be readily seen, of the kind one spots instantly in India, Bangladesh, Central America, and all over Africa.     That there are poor is equally obvious, but the definition of poor is different when a trip through the new settlements of the Mahaweli District enables one to note that no one is dressed in rags; that the peasant working in the field finishes his daily work, washes, puts on fresh clothes, and  (often) sits down and reads a newspaper.   There are, to be sure, poor areas and slums in Colombo, but nothing like what offends the visitor’s sensibilities on the streets of Bombay and in the barrios of Central and South America. A change of clothes may not seem like much, but it clearly indicates some surplus and some grace of life above survival.

The age-old ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka between the majority Sinhalese and the much smaller Tamil community is currently in a stage of open conflict. It is the central issue of the day, and has earned the country a place—admittedly not of the top priority—in the international media. There are two curious aspects of this struggle that strike one.  First of all, it is being fought out within relatively clear limits.    It is not, at least not yet, a full-fledged war between two national or racial communities.   There is still a controlled air about it; with each side feeling its way along. The Government clearly has directed its efforts to dealing with a distinct number of insurgents (or terrorists if you will) while distinguishing them (at least in theory) from the general mass of Sri Lankan Tamils. Visitors have to be reminded how many Tamils live outside of the North and the East; in fact live in Colombo itself.  There is an air of walking along the edge of a precipice; a fear of falling over into a situation of irrevocable division between the two communities. The militant leadership claims that that has already happened, but many hope not.

Secondly, there is the unusual situation where both communities express the same sense of grievance; that they are minority communities threatened with oppression and even extinction.  The Tamil claim to this status is obvious, based on their minority population position in the country and claims of Sinhalese majority government oppressive measures taken after independence.  The Sinhalese claim is based on a longer historical memory and refers to centuries if not millennia of invasion and attacks from the vastly larger Tamil community of south India.   As these two communities differ in religion, language, customs,  and  (so they claim) race,  the ties at  that bind are not strong although they do exist in terms of coexistence over the centuries.      

Looking around the world, one is inclined to be pessimistic about the possibility of two communities with these differences and attitudes coming to a reasonable working relationship.  Except, of course, that they have done so at various times in the past and the very real working democracy that exists does offer a framework for conciliation.  This will require on the part of the Sinhalese a bit more self-confidence and willingness to be generous to the Tamil minority. On the part of the Tamils, it will require getting down off of the high horse which derive from the “Rice Christian” position which they occupied in British Colonial period. They must accept that they are and always will be a minority.

Current politics aside, a most striking aspect of Sri Lanka is the degree to which it resembles other fairly small, old, and cohesive nations.  I sense here that combination of ancient heritage, sense of community, and the cautious resentment of bigger neighbors that I felt in Belgium and Portugal. In all three, there is enormous pride of a separate and an individual national personality combined with a touchiness about its lack of outside recognition. The Portuguese deeply resent any intimation that they are provincial Spaniards just as the Sinhalese brittle at those who confuse them with the Indians (and particularly South Indians.)   The sense of national personality is very strong and based on a long communal memory. That the Sinhalese nevertheless understand their situation is obvious. At the end of a long luncheon discussion with some Sri Lankan colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I remarked that their situation reminded me of the comment by Mexican president about his country’s situation:  “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” They broke out in enthusiastic if rueful laughter. Old countries, albeit small, with old civilizations do have their charm.End.

Ed Marks
Ed Marks

Ed Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.


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