Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Wars, rebellion, and death. These themes jump from the pages of newspapers and history books in South Asia. Then, they come from the mouths of guides. We’re in Sri Lanka this week.

“There were over two hundred casualties here,” our guide waves around a lush green park spotted with vine-covered trees and palms. “Men with guns came during festival and fired until no more bullets.”

It’s the site of the world’s oldest, continuously tended tree, the sacred bodhi tree, an offshoot of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

We walk on bare and tender feet around the walls that separate the two thousand year old tree from the worshipping public. Then, and again on bare feet, we admire a nearby Buddhist stupa (called dagoba locally … don’t ask. Until a year ago I had no idea what a stupa was and still am not too sure except that it’s big and round, generally solid right through, shaped like a Mongol’s helmet and, often strung with prayer flags. For the most part, these are not buildings with interior rooms. You don’t enter them. Instead, you pray while circumnavigating them on foot—seven times is the idea.)

Later, driving back to the hotel, we pass an intersection. “The road to the north,” our driver pointed and gave a snort of sound … hard to tell if of disgust or mirth. “No one can go.”

The roadblock had the usual staggered barriers … you get used to them. In South Asia the police as well as the military set out these tall, triangularly shaped impedances. But these weren’t your typical barriers, these were the mother of all barriers—built like the berms of a Civil War fort—tall, constructed of stone and soil and already covered with grass as though the war, once again resumed in Sri Lanka, had never stopped. Maybe it didn’t.

We definitely got that impression, over and over again as we’re repeatedly patted down by uniformed females and walk through metal detectors to enter historical or religious sites.

My titanium thigh bone and hip set off the alarms, but no one mentions it or stops me. Just as the guards assigned to search packages at the entrances to the modern Delhi metro—a prime target for home-grown insurgents, seldom stir from their tables to hinder the flow of passengers, all carrying something.

That’s because these are wars run South Asia style.

And there’s enough of them. Impossible to go anywhere without seeing the impact. Insurgencies are rife, every country having at least one. Pakistan fights in Kashmir and in the Tribal areas. Bangladesh has its incessant bombings and strikes. India conducts six or seven wars within its various states—nevermind the conflict with Pakistan.

“Once the U.N. comes we will have peace.” Those were sentiments I heard repeated in Nepal, over and over, almost as a mantra. Which, while we were there, didn’t stop the Maoists from calling a general strike, sending armed insurgents flooding out of the camps, and threatening a resumption of violence.

In Sri Lanka the Norwegians came in the nineties, persuaded the Tamils to coexist with the Sinhalese (and/or vice versa) and both of these ethnic groups to put up with the minority Muslims. That put a temporary lid on the decade-long spree of bombings and killings in the name of ethnicism or nationalism or Marxism … didn’t really matter what –ism.

But hostilities have resumed. While the people of Nepal are coming out of a ten-year cycle of hostilities, the Sri Lankans are headed back in. At least they’ve had their refreshing period of stability and economic growth. Too bad you can’t say the same for most of the rest of South Asia.

“It’s bad for business, ma’am,” a hotel manager tells me.

“Too bad you don’t run the country,” I reply and head for the beach. The likelihood of encountering a bomb-lobbing beach boy is slim, and I feel capable of handling anything else.


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