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May you live long, but not here

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"Ayubowan", is the first word a visitor to Sri Lanka hears on arrival. These days one could be forgiven for thinking it means something very rude. It doesn't, and the increasingly rare tourist would probably not suspect any hostility behind the still ever-present smiles. Until, that is, she or he makes the mistake of picking up a local newspaper. Traditionally fairly diverse, most Sri Lankan media outlets now speak with one voice to the "International Community", and the message is not "ayubowan", it's "mind your own business".

Increase the impact of the culture shock by going to cover what appears at first sight to be a peaceful demonstration against Foreign Secretary David Miliband by orange-robed buddhist monks in front of the British High Commission in Colombo. Nothing much to photograph (most people smile at the camera and ask where I'm from), and I soon get sleepy from the buddhist chanting and incense. I wake up when the monk speaking into the microphone switches to English. It turns out his rhetoric is somewhat less than peaceful, and within minutes he has concluded that Miliband "represents terrorism" and has come to Sri Lanka to rescue LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The monk, who has stopped smiling at this stage, gives no reason as to why Miliband or any reasonably sane individual or nation would want to rescue a Tiger with a reputation as spotty as Prabhakaran's. Some of the banners do though, by suggesting that Miliband is jealous of Sri Lanka's apparent success in "wiping out terrorism".

Granted, the monks at the High Commission are from the JHU, a small-ish Sinhala buddhist political party that rises to the surface by stirring up a murky brew of religion, nationalism and anti-pretty-much-anything-else propaganda. But the same recipe seems to also work well for other, more moderate Sinhala buddhist Sri Lankans. There is very little real debate about the war. Politicans and local media have all draped themselves in the flag to combat their two main enemies. The main foe is the Tamil Tiger, now threatened by the process of "eradicating terrorism", a term much loved by the spin doctors. The other enemy would appear to be us. In the eyes of many Sri Lankans, the international community has become an international conspiracy. Foreign governments, the UN, NGO's of all kinds, and of course the media are treated with suspicion and disdain. Many of the ever smiling Sri Lankans seem to genuinely believe that we are at best incompetent, and at worst have a hidden agenda. Hence, we the media simply aren't allowed to cover events in and around the no-fire/combat zone, and the "welfare villages"  where the internally displaced are being held.

So when the Swedish Foreign Minister gets snubbed and leading international officials are vilified, there are, in the minds of many here, good reasons for it. More surprising perhaps is that many of the young and educated have wrapped their heads in the same opaque flag. The other day Indi Samarajiva, a brilliant young Sri Lankan Canadian American blogger publicly dismissed my colleagues and me as a "tourists". And he didn't even smile and say "ayubowan".


indi | April 30, 2009 4:51 AM | Reply

Ayubowan. I don't agree with you but you live here and you certainly have a right to comment.

When I say tourist I mean that international media interest is transitory. Sri Lanka one day swine flu the next. They're not getting the story right and they certainly don't have the solution.

Any real solution has to come from the Sri Lankan people, and right now this is a popular war. Rather than judging that and saying 'aney pauw' the international media might try talking to Sri Lankans to understand.

The war is popular and Sri Lankans are not stupid. We are also not callous, it is us delivering relief, not the LTTE or diaspora (savevanni.blogspot.com). Coverage might start with respect.

Helene Bergman | April 30, 2009 9:42 AM | Reply

Excellent description of the political situation on the island. It`s sounds very much alike the situation in Zim, where the power always are blaming the media and the foreigners. Then the powers don`t need to critizies themselves because it is never, ever their fault. And then the oppression can go on!!

Kiraja El Sumal | May 1, 2009 10:13 PM | Reply

Dear heroic Mr Hvaal: your "colleagues" means diving instructors? Dismissed "as a tourists"?! Well, that's silly. Your are just an expat, aren't you? Or could it be that brilliant Sri Lankan youth has an old fashion view of what hypocrisy is?
Hope business goes well.
Funny couple you are with Helen. So eager to help each other's publicity. For some may feel embarrassing. Not for pare of you, obviously.

Richard McIntyre | May 3, 2009 11:47 PM | Reply

I have spent a long time in Sri Lanka, and I'd like to congratulate you. Your childish comment perfectly illustrates what Morten Hvaal writes about. Think you can fix it by yourselves, by killing each other for another 30 years? Good luck. You'll be the next ZImbabwe, only more racist.

Kiraja El Sumal | May 4, 2009 8:15 AM | Reply

Dear Mr Mclntyre - while in SL did you pay income taxes? Or perhaps like Mr Hvaal you made your business somewhat creatively unsuccessful for tax purposes, as you "grown ups" do?

Azi Za | May 5, 2009 4:13 AM | Reply

Ayubowan, dear Kiraja! :) :)
Without you this blog would be perfectly sensible and boring...
Since you show such vast knowledge on local taxes and etc, hope you can clarify few things for me.
Why same faces on those protests? A small group that shows everywhere with angry slogans and smiling faces doesn't really represent the whole country...
And can they read and understand English banners they are holding?
Since the last O-levels result point that 65% didn't pass English( hmm, and 55 % couldn't do Math and Science either, so it is not that they don't like foreign language) I assume that a third have no idea what they are protesting for...

I have been in Sri Lanka for too long to catch this "reasoning" virus- all doesn't make any sense but sounds WOW how powerful!

Kiraja El Sumal | May 5, 2009 5:53 AM | Reply

Dear Miss Za!
So here we have with your helpful input: same group of uneducated monks protesting time after time in front of the same group of international fly high photographers. Same faces both sides! Monks do know little English, while sleepy and indeed boring Mr Hvaal knows non of the local language, cannot even name it, and wakes up from his snooze only when one of the peasants switching into English. Investigative journalism at its best!

Perhaps education level in SL is not that terribly low if Mr Hvaal himself decided to educate in Colombo his only legitimate child? Or is it because of another monetary advantage Europeans enjoy in Lanka?

Helene Bergman | May 5, 2009 8:09 AM | Reply

Dear Kiraja El Sumal,
Though you are from Sri Lanka I think you need some education in ethics and the rules for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Because with freedom it also follows some rules and responsibilities.
You can say whatever you like as long as you don`t step into the private life. You have just broken that golden rule!
And that shows your real weakness of argument! You don`t want to debate! You just want to get your aggressions out!

Vikum Nanayakara | May 5, 2009 9:33 AM | Reply

Dear all
Very interesting discussion is unfolding here. Unfortunately we can not show our real identity while interacting here as a Sri Lankans as every body knows the fate of the individuals who do not decent the government line of thinking. If not sure just let me jog down few names of the journalists who were attacked in Sri Lanka. Lasantha Wickramathunga Editor Sunday Leader (killed in the daytime at close proximity to defense unit in Rathmalana), Upali Thennakoon editor of the Sinhalese language weekly newspaper Rivira. Many have left the country already. There is only one language and this guy Kiraja knows that language. GOSL has stopped Sri Lankan directors showing their film such as Aksharaya which is against government thinking. Sirasa Media station and the government own Rupavahini Corporation were attacked by unknown gang at night and Minister Marvin Silva at day time respectively. No culprits were brought to justice so far. Mr Kiraja will not know that Sri Lanka will have such a high rate of failure in English language and other subjects of OL. In Sri Lanka you don't need any knowledge or intelligence to hold any government position. Only one thing is required it is the language Mr Kiraja know well and shown very well by his short note on this blog. Sorry guys! We have to wait and see.

Azi Za | May 5, 2009 11:53 AM | Reply

If one has physical power the brain is not needed- all comes to my mind now...

This country will never reach the peace if people here will not speak of themselves as of Sri Lankans and not as of Tamils and Sinhalese ( and some other minorities)...People who have tried to do so-well, we know of their fate, Vikum has given only few examples.

I do love this country, I feel for these people and can only pray for peace to come to this wonderful land before more damage is done. (Kiraja, it is only up to you and people like you to stop this...so why not try?)

Vikum | May 6, 2009 5:04 AM | Reply

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

English novelist (1812 - 1870)

Kiraja El Sumal | May 6, 2009 6:00 AM | Reply

Dear Miss Bergman. Thank you kindly for patronizing reprimand!
You left your first comment here to support Mr Hvaal’s new blog by providing friends-induced fake traffic, aren’t you? Not a lot of a respect for sucked-in readers, who may follow this prearranged in your kitchen or bedroom ‘discussion', I would say. But who am I? You are the one - white European! - who will tailor rules for the world. According to your needs.
You are right about my anger though.
I am seriously crossed with Mr. Hvaal. He just started to indulge us in pushing SL erotic photography up to a new level. Thousands of men await more. And here he goes back to politics, scowling-howling how he was insulted by the old man on a street in Colombo. Paint your skin dark, Mr Hvaal and have a stroll in Oslo downtown. Report back!

Peter Duleu | May 6, 2009 7:05 AM | Reply

Dear Kiraja. Unexpectedly I found myself waiting to read your posts. I am not sure what is the magic, but it is there. People here are too suggestive about you and you offer no feedback. I still cannot decide are you a man or a woman? What nationality are you? I am sure you are not SL government official; none of them are bright enough. What are your views on Tigers if any?

Azi Za | May 6, 2009 3:54 PM | Reply

I must admit, Kiraja's supportive url for "SL erotic photography" was a bit disappointing.
It only shows the great talent of the photographer and the true beauty of the object... But where is the promised
"erotic" part???
Are the candles and dim light enough to call it "erotic" and worth thousands of men awaiting for more???
Oh, I pity you and those thousands of men you know, Kiraja!

But, please, do show us more evidence or facts. It really keeps many well informed of how the truth is being established and spread here...

Kiraja, being a bit fair to the blogger, lets keep his "kitchen" and "bedroom" alone...There are many other places Morten Hvaal has shown his other remarkable talents, just google it and you will see yourself...

Look forward to see Peter Duleu's questions answered.

Anonymous replied to comment from indi | May 7, 2009 3:36 PM | Reply

For the record: I just found Indi's prompt comment in the spambox and posted it at the top where it belongs chronologically. I'd like to apologise for the unintended temporary censorship, and thank Indi for commenting. I value his opinions.

indi | May 7, 2009 6:54 PM | Reply

@Helen @Richard

This is not Zimbabwe. I wish you wouldn't be so quick to condemn us.

Sri Lanka is obviously a mess, but our democracy is still alive after two Sinhala insurrections and sustaining the most suicide bombings in the world (among other things) for my entire lifetime. We had elections last week. My guy lost but I'll work with him and we'll try again.

It is important to understand most Sri Lankans feel like our lives can begin once we defeat the LTTE. This current crisis is manufactured by them to play on western emotions like the above, to condemn Sri Lanka outright without giving us a chance. I know the government sucks. It's still my government. I don't think it's especially probable, but we still have a chance.

I say manufactured because those few kilometres in Mullativu are not inhabited by 50,000 or even 150,000 people. The entire population of the district is 220,000, Cities like Kandy and Galle are 100-150k. The LTTE herded human beings as a human shield. We need to condemn them and help our feeble government deal with the human fallout of this despicable act.

Unless the West wants to come in and occupy and somehow fix us, Sri Lankans do have to fix ourselves. Our nation and, yes, our government deserve a chance.

Kiraja El Sumal | May 8, 2009 6:37 AM | Reply

Dear Mr Duleu. May I reject your compliment. It’s done by putting down all SL state officers. Unkind generalization in Miss Bergman style.
As for Tamils/Tigers in SL they are subjected to local genocide. They are spitting bowls, garbage cleaners. Never saw in Colombo piles of trash on their doorsteps? It’s tragic.
More tragic is my observation that civil conflicts mostly cannot be helped from outside. And not a lot West can do, especially after the way of ‘helping’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, Westerners more than others are very good at helping, when it comes to help WESTselves. Humans are like that, but West transformed survival instinct into main political principle. It is just never enough for us - we want more land, more oil, more gold, more fame, more attention. Like our Mr Hvaal here. Great example of grabbing everything best of what SL has to offer, and doing good job to discredit white man’s reputation further. You know what his last thing is? He gives diving lessons to local ladies and then writes on Twitter: ‘baptized another mermaid’. Most of them are Theravada, some Muslims, some Christians. How more insensitive can one be to a surrounding culture?
I have done better traffic job here than poor Miss Bergman. But knowing life - how can you know I am not Mr Hvaal’s brother or his new gorgeous black-skin fiancée? I am for sure not his paid traffic generator though, as Mr Hvaal’s has debts bigger than his ego, and it’s awesome! Why do you think he is in SL on a first place? Cheap place to live.
I rest my case.

Anonymous replied to comment from indi | May 8, 2009 1:46 PM | Reply


It goes without saying that all coverage of people who are suffering should start with respect. I think you would find it difficult to find examples of me being disrespectful towards anyone victimised by the conflict here, or indeed conflict, disaster or poverty anywhere.

Of course Sri Lankans are the ones who should sort Sri Lanka out. I don't recall suggesting otherwise. Sri Lankans have created, and sustained, this murderous mess for decades, and it is high time they fixed it.

Whether or not Sri Lankans are stupid or callous as a people is obviously not for me to judge. So I won't. Chances are they're about the same as everyone else, including the good people of Zimbabwe and Norway. I am however a little surprised by your authoritative conclusion that "This is not Zimbabwe", and that the comparison is a quick condemnation of Sri Lanka. What do you base that conclusion on? Have you lived and worked in Zimbabwe? Surely, you're not judging an entire African nation based on what you learn from the transitory tourist foreign media?

Try for a moment to consider us a necessary evil. We try to cover conflicts because without us there would be only propaganda. Hence our suspicion when one or all sides declare that they have nothing to hide, but hide it anyway. And hence our fear of getting it wrong. We often work with stories about life and death. Getting it right can on rare occasions mean life rather than death. Unfortunately, as you indicate: in Sri Lanka we're mostly not getting it at all.

Peter Duleu | May 8, 2009 7:55 PM | Reply

Ohoho... labeled indi - will you take a bite? you see - without MH you are just propaganda. Why not to invite Morten to continue this discussion inside YOUR blog? He is after a shank of your readership.
And leave us here with more wonderful suggestive erotic pix,please. Pity my comment was deleted!

Eric Ellis | May 10, 2009 9:38 AM | Reply

Well put, Morten!.....

"Try for a moment to consider us a necessary evil. We try to cover conflicts because without us there would be only propaganda. Hence our suspicion when one or all sides declare that they have nothing to hide, but hide it anyway. And hence our fear of getting it wrong. We often work with stories about life and death. Getting it right can on rare occasions mean life rather than death. Unfortunately, as you indicate: in Sri Lanka we're mostly not getting it at all.".......

What do you think?