Tuesday, September 20, 2011


"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to give in to it."
Oscar Wilde, from The Picture of Dorian Gray

Cupid and Psyche

Must apply myself to the job search
Must make a list of things to do
Must brush my teeth...

     X--who responded with such patronizing restraint to my appeal for a boycott of the Genocide-Avoidance Tour of Sri Lanka, the slender young man in flannel whom I dreamed of taking by the shoulders and shaking some sense into--is a woman.

     This morning I was the recipient of a mass-mailing informing me that X [is a traitor] is a woman.  Also, she's been promoted.

     Not only that, she's neither slender nor given to wearing flannel.  (I had a look on Google Images.) X double-majored in Political Science and Theater Design. 

     Turns out I'm sexist; I presume that women are emotional and empathetic while men are patronizing and restrained.

     Do I owe Ms. X an apology?  Have I been using her as a pin cushion for my frustrations?  She's a woman (like me), artistic (like me), not slender (like me), and she majored in Political Science so she can't be ignorant.  How can she be so appealing--and so appalling?

     Guess what?  She's even even more culpable now.  According to my cultural and highly subjective personal expectations, she should know better.  Do I hold women to a higher moral standard?  You bet.  What good is estrogen without the drive to nurture and protect those we love?

Really, she's not fooling me, and neither is Sree Padma Holt, the director of the ISLE program, who hides behind a curtain of academia like the Great and Wonderful Oz.

     It feels great to give in to temptation and, my love, we're going all the way now.

     If you don't know much about Sri Lanka, don't worry, you're not alone.  You probably know about the Tsunami that devastated parts of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand in 2004, but might not be able to pinpoint it on a map or even recall what language is spoken there.  

     Sri Lanka is a tropical island that dangles like a teardrop off the southeastern coast of India.  It's tiny--about the size of West Virginia--and has to be blown up out of all proportion just to be visible on a map.  There are not a lot of people there, and no one's drilling for oil. You'll notice a "Made in Sri Lanka" tag on a lot of Western clothing that's cheaply assembled in factories there (probably by Tamils).  Major exports are tea, coffee, cinnamon, rubber and coconuts. Technology, not so much.  Its history can be traced back about 3,000 years.

     Like so many other troubled countries, it was once colonized by the British, who named it Ceylon.  After gaining independence in 1948, the country was eventually renamed Sri Lanka, which translates as resplendent isle.  

     It's a tourist attraction because of its pristine, white beaches and a lush, mountainous region containing waterfalls, tea plantations, rice paddies, and a place called Adam's Peak. 

There are areas of great cultural interest, including Buddhist temples, Hindu shrines and religious art and festivals.  People are friendly and the food is divine.  There are, indeed, elephants, monkeys, and snake charmers.

Picturesque, brokeback women picking tea for slave wages
     World-reknowned writers  have written about their experience of Sri Lanka--Michael Ondaatje ("Running in the Family" and "Anil's Ghost" are set in Sri Lanka, where he spent much of his childhood, but he's most famous for "The English Patient"); Gerald Durrell, the naturalist; and Arthur C. Clarke ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), who lived in Sri Lanka from the mid-'50s until his death in 2008.  Roma Tearne, a British artist and fiction writer, has written beautifully and profoundly about Sri Lanka.  She fled Sri Lanka with her parents, a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father, in 1964 when she was 10.  

    Sri Lanka is not a melting pot; it has several distinct cultures. The majority of its citizens are Sinhalese and practice Theravada Buddhism.  Their language is Sinhala, which looks like this: 

The largest minority are Tamils, who are ethnically different (even this is debated) and practice Hinduism or have converted to Christianity.  Their language is Tamil.  They look a little different from one another; Tamils tend to be darker-skinned than Sinhalese (also debatable).  Here's what Tamil looks like: 

     The Moors (Muslims), an even smaller minority, are distinct from Tamils but speak the Tamil language.

     In the 1970s the Sinhala Only act was used to exclude Tamils from the police, army, courts and governmental services, a policy of colonization of Tamil areas was extended, "plantation Tamils" were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to India, and access to universities was denied.  Racist policy was implemented by left-leaning parties aligned with the workers' movement, so Tamils had absolutely nowhere to turn.  The Sinhalese had all the resources.

The burned remains of the Jaffna Library
     As we've seen over and over in other countries, when young people have no reasonable options, no voice, and no hope for the future, they are often willing to die for their cause. The Tamil Tigers was started as a separatist militant organization in 1976 by Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Their campaign for an independent Tamil state grew into a civil war.  

The Sri Lankan army
     The Tigers hid themselves in the jungle and pioneered the use of "suicide belts."  High-profile attacks included the assassinations of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi , but they were well-known for bombing buses and trains full of civilians.  Human rights organizations calculate that the Tigers have killed as many as 8,000 Tamils whom they considered to be traitors to their cause.  The Tigers recruited (or kidnapped) a male child from every Tamil family in order to help fill their ranks and level the playing field.  If families had no male children, the Tigers made do with girls.

The Tigers
     The Sinhalese, as far as I can tell, began to cultivate their own, perverse persecution complex.  "We are such a tiny island, we are a venerable, vulnerable culture threatened with extinction at the hands of these Tamils. The Tamils have India, we have only this little island."  

     The Sri Lankan army sought to systematically destroy not just the Tigers but Tamil culture.  The library in Jaffna was burned, Tamil cemeteries were razed, and Tamil language was already taboo.  Although atrocities (kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder) were committed by the Sri Lankan army against civilians throughout the course of the civil war, the last days were particularly sadistic.  Tigers and civilians, including women and children, who held white flags and were promised their lives would be spared were rounded up on the beach between the sea and the jungle and shot, stabbed, and mutilated by the thousands.  

     In July of this year, BBC aired a documentary called "The Killing Fields" on their Channel 4 news with eyewitness accounts and videotape of the carnage. (I keep meaning to watch it, but I can't bear it yet.)  In my search, I noticed several Sinhalese blogs devoted to discounting the facts of that documentary.  Here in the United States, I keep my eyes open for any news of Sri Lanka and the Channel 4 documentary never made it here. 

     The Tamil people were caught, unbearably, between the single-minded brutality of the Sinhalese government on one side, and the single-minded brutality of the Tigers on the other.  India quietly sent arms to the Tigers, but did not advocate publicly or do much to further negotiations between the Tamils and Sinhalese. There was no place for Tamils to run, no place to turn, nowhere to hide. 

     Imagine if the Nazi regime had remained unopposed in its effort to solve "the Jewish problem"?  The current "post-war" situation in Sri Lanka is somewhat analogous to that scenario.  The remaining Tamils are utterly defeated and in a perpetual state of terror and intimidation while the United Nations has been lightly brushed aside. Privileged American students have continued to study in Sri Lanka through the ISLE program since 1982, which was the year I went. Fall term has begun; American students are studying the rich, multi-ethnic culture of Sri Lanka right there, right now, as I write this.  They study the Sinhalese language and Theravada Buddhism.  They stay with Sinhalese host families and call it "immersion." They learn Kandyan dancing and visit an elephant orphanage.  I've been told they read about the "ethnic conflict" before they get on the plane to Negombo, but not while they're in Colombo or Kandy. They learn to love this gem of an island, and receive the hospitality of its people, at what cost?  I'm still paying.

     X, my alter-ego, my other half, yang to my yin, you're a real heartbreaker.


  1. Dear Charlotte,

    Flynn is my sister. She is a wonderful human being, and I don't think you know or understand anything about her. She actually going to study public policy and does truly care about the plight of Sri Lanka as well as everyone in her life. I and she have both been hurt by your careless comments. Please try to take your anger out on the culprit (those actually carrying out the genocide) rather than personally attacking others, especially in such a public forum! I hope that in your path to defending the victims of genocide, you don't trample on other good people along the way.

    1. Meghan, I probably should have answered you in "reply" mode, but I posted it as a separate comment. I just want to make sure you see my response. I looked back through all my posts pertaining to the ISLE program and deleted your sister's name wherever I found it.

  2. Dear Meghan,

    I'm sorry I hurt you and your sister. You're right, I don't know her, and I have no doubt her intentions are good, that she's smart, and I'm sure I'd like her as a person.

    My comments are not careless-although I never really thought anyone other than my friends would read these pieces. These are my feelings and opinions that I express in my blog.

    Someone I love has disappeared in Sri Lanka, along with 10s or 100s of thousands of others who have been tortured and killed, and the regime continues without so much as a slap on the wrist, and American students continue to visit there to study what? Not the genocide, that's for sure. I believe the ISLE program is immoral, no matter how decent the participants are.

    I will remove your sister's name from my blog--I agree that it has no place here.


    1. Dear Charlotte,

      I'm very sorry for your loss. Thank you for removing her name from the blog.