I clearly remember my first visit to Sri Lanka. It was the winter of 1986, Jayawardane was in his second term as President and Premadasa was Prime Minister. The Tamil struggle was in its infancy.
As the incoming plane flew low over the lush fields of Katanayake, glinting in the bright sunshine, I could tell why this island was once called Serendip. From the sky, its beauty is dazzling: acres and acres of brilliant emerald green, edged by the deep azure blue of the sea.
The first thing that strikes you are the people. In the 1980s they always seemed to smile. More than that, they laughed easily and, usually, they laughed a lot. Consequently, they were easy to approach, willing to chat, and went out of their way to help. Rukman Senanayake, a nephew of the former Prime Minister, took me to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, cracking jokes about the Sri Lankan accent all the way.
“Pay close attention to our pronunciation,” he teased. “We call it the Temple of the Tooth!” He was talking about the famous temple with the Buddha’s tooth, except his pronunciation made the word rhyme with foot. It was our first meeting but it felt as if we’d known each other for years.
The next two decades did a lot to wipe the smile off Sri Lankan faces. After successive onslaughts of LTTE terrorism, their jovial innocence evaporated. Instead, a look of tired resignation and a philosophical nodding of the head appeared to take its place.
For me, the most telling experience was with a taxi driver in 1997. We were driving to The Hilton, hours after the hotel had been bombed by the LTTE. I was one of a 100-odd victims. With bandages on my head, hands and shin, I was returning to pick up my bags.
The drive began in companionable silence. Although he couldn’t bring himself to speak, the driver kept sucking his cheeks and shaking his head in evident sympathy. But as the devastated hotel came into view his restraint vanished.
“What a terrific hotel this used to be.” He spoke softly, with evident pain. His eyes were wet. “I remember all the happy people I have brought here. Will they ever come back?”
“Of course they will”. I tried to be reassuring although I was about to leave, lucky to have survived the LTTE. “The future will be bright.”
“The future?” I’ve never heard the word spoken with so much disbelief. He said no more, yet he had said it all. The silence that followed was pregnant with despair and hopelessness.
Sri Lanka, I suddenly realised, had lost its future. It only seemed to have a past. It had become an island of memories. With each passing year they became both exaggerated and faded. But, because that’s all that was left, they were clung on to tenaciously.
I may be exaggerating a little, but that future has returned to the horizon with the defeat of the LTTE. Whilst their struggle for Tamil rights was undoubtedly fair and just, the Tigers had become an insuperable obstacle to the success of their own cause. They may have seen themselves as freedom fighters but millions perceived them as murderers and terrorists. They had transformed into their own enemies.
The challenge now is to win over the hearts and minds of the Tamil people. That sounds like the most trite of clichés, but the truth often is. The test is not the political system that President Mahinda Rajapaksa will offer the North — though that’s important enough — but the smaller, more important, steps he must take to weave the Tamil minority into the mainstream: real representation in the civil and defence services, effective implementation of Tamil as a national language at the level of police stations and small government offices and the eradication of the attitude that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala country.
Perhaps my taxi driver is smiling today. Maybe he can see or, at least, sense a future. But it is still to be realised. Otherwise, like a mirage, it could vanish once again.