When Travel Writing Becomes Propaganda

by Taylor Dibbert, ‘The Diplomat,’ Tokyo, December 14, 2016

Let’s take a closer look at the article.

According to Andrew Solomon, Sri Lanka is experiencing “a peace that not only unites the country’s previously divided ethnicities but inflects the experience of any visitor to the island.”

When Travel Writing Becomes Propaganda: Sri Lanka Edition

Image Credit: Colby Otero via Wikimedia Commons

According to Solomon, “[t]his historic change resulted from the 2015 open election of the soft-spoken, liberal President Maithripala Sirisena, who enacted reforms aimed at curbing corruption and healing ethnic rifts.”Wow. Even an optimistic take on the current state of affairs in the country would acknowledge that Sri Lanka remains a deeply divided nation. Solomon’s remark about “a new unity” in the war-torn country looks equally naïve.

Unfortunately, the government has yet to deal with high-level corruption and there are concerns that it won’t ever adequately address this problem. To make matters worse, the Sirisena administration hasn’t addressed a major corruption scandal that occurred on its watch.

What about ethnic divisions?

Here again, Solomon misses the mark badly. While it’s good that a transitional justice program is in the works, the root causes of the island nation’s ethnic conflict remain unresolved and there are now a host of reasons to believe that the status quo could prevail during Sirisena’s tenure. “What more can I say about this [Condé Nast article] other than saying it reads like well-tutored propaganda material for the international community by this hybrid government, paid or not,” says Kusal Perera, a senior journalist who lives in Colombo. “[A]ll references to political change are woefully wrong.”

Here’s more from Perera:

“‘Unity’ is definitely restricted to dinner plates and cricket banners and nowhere else in the country. Even the tsunami reconstruction (post-2004 December) is credited to this 2015 January change that failed miserably in finding funds from the West. Wonder if this family ever heard of Sinhala extremist Buddhist monks sitting with government ministers and the mild-mannered president, to discuss a unitary Sinhala-Buddhist State and the Tamil leaders wanting a federal power-sharing system being called ‘traitors’ who should be publicly hung? And that’s ‘unity’ for those who collect notes from a diplomat [America’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives] whose job is to justify his country’s loud presence in Colombo.”

Solomon and his family didn’t travel to the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces. If they had, the group might have discovered that sustained militarization, ongoing reports of sexual violence, and the military’s continued occupation of civilian land are major issues. They might also have learned that the Sri Lankan military remains heavily involved in tourism.

Toward the end of the piece, the reader is treated to Solomon’s reflections from Colombo. He, quite evidently, enjoyed the Galle Face Hotel and the area nearby. “Beholding this model of civility en masse, I found it impossible to imagine the long stretch of beach to the north where, only seven years ago, thousands of civilians were killed in the last onslaught against the Tamil Tigers,” he writes.

Had Solomon visited the north, he might not have found certain things so “impossible to imagine.” As mentioned, the province remains a truly difficult place to live and there’s no indication that that will change for the foreseeable future. Besides, there has been no accountability for abuses that occurred during the end of the war and Sirisena doesn’t seem keen on accountability either.

Furthermore, had Solomon actually spoken to people who live in the north, he might not have such a hard time imagining tens of thousands of civilians being slaughtered by Sri Lankan government forces in 2009, as the war came to its tragic finish. (This isn’t to say that the Tamil Tigers don’t have blood on their hands; they most certainly do.)

There are other issues that we could discuss, but you get the drift. And, admittedly, there are some decent anecdotes about travel in the piece. Nevertheless, this is an irresponsible, unprincipled article which glosses over important aspects – even for travelers – of the current state of affairs in the country. There’s no getting around that.

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