Negombo and Goodbye to Some of Sri Lanka

Negombo is a beach town on the Indian Ocean, 25 miles north of Colombo. It’s gritty and the electricity goes out for hours at a time but the people are friendly and the salty breeze off the the ocean softens the harsh tropical heat. I arrived on Monday evening after a six-hour ride through the mountains that almost killed me, car sickness-wise. Tuesday morning, I walked a few blocks to Cafe Enviro to reintroduce my stomach to something more substantial than water. I sat down directly in front of a large whirring fan. A few minutes later, my host, Hiru, brought me an icy lime-mint-ginger drink. It was heavenly.

Hiru at Cafe Enviro

Sitting there, I thought about my 17 days in Sri Lanka. I have loved it, but I realized I would be leaving only half of this country. I didn’t visit the half that is Tamil, north and east of Negombo. My sense is that you can’t really understand modern Sri Lanka if you don’t understand the Tamils and the civil war that has defined their relationship to the rest of the country.

Between 1983 and 2009, the (mostly Hindu) Tamils and the Sinhalese-controlled (mostly Buddhist) government battled for control of large parts of the island. The Tamils were fighting for independence. The Sinhalese government was fighting to keep the country together and stop the violence.

The tension between the Sinhalese and the Tamils is modern. The two groups have been in Sri Lanka for thousands of years — and they got along well until the British left in 1948. In the years during the occupation, the British empowered the Sinhalese to the exclusion of the minority Tamils. After the British left, Sinhalese leaders proceeded to make the nation Sinhalese, which meant some official and some less explicit types of discrimination against the Tamils.

Over time, the Tamils responded, predictably, by forming the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers or LTTE). They militarized the ethnic tension with bombs, land mines and terror. The ensuing civil war was like all wars. Senseless murders, betrayals, the cruel involvement of other nations, and the displacement of many thousands from their homes. The military’s final assault on the Tamils in 2008 unleashed relentless aggression, the murder and disappearance of thousands, and the deaths of the Tamil Tiger leadership.

At Negombo’s vast fish market

Each side blames the other for the violence and surely both are to blame but, unlike the Sinhalese, the Tamil community has not recovered. Thousands of acres of Tamil land remain under the control of the military and as many as 40,000 Tamils remain homeless. Vast areas of northern Sri Lanka are bombed out and filled with live land mines. Some of the pre-war discrimination appears to have survived even if it is less explicit. Among other things, there seems to be an understanding among Sinhalese that Tamils cannot run for president because a Tamil could not be trusted to guard the Buddha tooth relic.

Hindu temple near Dambulla

In 2012, the United Nations passed a resolution finding the Sinhalese government committed war crimes against the Tamil community, estimating that 65,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for. Despite international pressure and many promises by the Sri Lankan government, there has not been a serious effort to pursue justice for the hundreds of thousands of innocent Tamils who suffered during the war.

And I know from my limited experience here that no one is comfortable talking about the war or its aftermath.

The country has been peaceful since 2009 but there is something here that remains unresolved. Why does this matter now? Because, as Sri Lanka’s civil war teaches, discrimination and silence eventually create the conditions for anger, disunity and even revolt.

Hiru was 11 when the war ended. At 21, she already runs her own successful cafe and she is optimistic about Sri Lanka’s future. But the country’s leadership will need to do more to treat all Sri Lankans as one national community if the country’s tentative peace is to be sustainable for Hiru’s generation.

Boys playing cricket on Negombo beach at sunset


  1. Such a tragedy when the peoples of one land can’t forgive, reconcile and resolve their differences. And so common among our flawed species.

      1. I think you’re right. Nowadays I carefully monitor and limit my exposure to the news channels screaming “BREAKING NEWS!!!” every five minutes. It’s the modern day equivalent to that old printed press adage “If it bleeds it leads.” And the algorithms for social media platforms funnel people into the more extremist and agonizing storylines. I’m sick of it all.

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