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My Encounters with Terrorism while Teaching in Sri Lanka

Terrorism and violence aren’t new to Sri Lanka, but ISIS is…

by Michael Lepetit

My School in Sri Lanka

One Saturday a student came to visit me where I was staying…. It was strange that this boy… who seemed the stereotype of an adolescent boy, was the son of essentially, a terrorist. He explained that one day he would grow up and take over his father’s legacy with an innocence that one might talk about taking over his father’s hardware store. He wanted nothing more than to make his father proud.

When I entered my room at around 2 A.M., in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Brother Rajan, the LaSallian brother who was the point man on my summer teaching trip there, gave me a tour, although there wasn’t much to tour.  There was, of course, the mosquito net over my bed.  It would be my first time, but certainly not the last time, I would sleep under one.  I also had my own bathroom, equipped with a western toilet and all.  I was thankful for that.  Before letting me climb under my net for the night, Brother Rajan warned me that the Islamic Call to Prayer would come on in a few hours.  I didn’t understand why he felt he had to warn me about this but when it came on, and I learned that the speaker was quite literally pointed directly into my window, I figured it out.  It was loud, and a little startling, but as my time there went on, I came to love it the way residents of New York City learn to love the sound of traffic.  As he was warning me about the prayer, he also disclosed a curious piece of information.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “we have people from every religion in this neighborhood, but everyone gets along.”  It wasn’t the type of thing I needed to be told and it seemed curious that he felt he had to say it at all.

One reason might have been because the country was currently in a civil war.In fact, about a day earlier as I was getting ready to head to the airport one of the two friends that I’d be traveling with called me and asked if I was aware that there was a war being fought in Sri Lanka.  This news had, only that day, surfaced in the western media.

The war, as it was explained to me, arose after the British occupation of the island.  Sri Lanka is populated by two ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils.  A majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese, while the minority are Tamil.  Both groups belong to a variety of religions, but Tamils are traditionally Hindu, while Sinhalese are traditionally Buddhist.   The Tamils benefited the most from the British occupation.  They quickly took to learning English and gained employable skills for a rapidly westernizing continent.  To my outside eye, this seemed to be true, even years later.  The school in which I was teaching tracked students by skill and ethnicity.  Of the six or so classes I taught a day, the first was an all Tamil class.  Their English was exceptional, many had nice watches and college educated parents, and their general knowledge of the western world seemed higher than one would expect (among American celebrities they loved were professional wrestler John Cena and magician David Copperfield).  The rest of my classes were all Sinhalese students.  Overall, the Tamil class outperformed even the best Sinhalese class.

After the British left, the Sinhalese took control of the island.  They looked down upon, and eventually mistreated the Tamils, who had better jobs and more money.  Eventually, fed up with the mistreatment, a radical group known as the Tamil Tigers set out to create a separate state known as the Tamil Ealam.  They used suicide bombers and car bombs to kill countless civilians.  The war went on and off until it ended in 2009, three years after I arrived.  Someone told me that the country would reach peace for a while until the wives, sons, and daughters of killed Tamil Tigers grew up or organized well enough to get their revenge and the war would fire up again.

While a majority of the war raged in the northern edges of Sri Lanka, it slowly crept south into Colombo.  As I have previously written about,  a suicide bomber killed Maj. Gen. Parami Kulatunga   only a few miles from where I was living.  Often, while travelling in a cab, armed soldiers would pull us over at a checkpoint and ask for our passports.  One day, when I arrived at the all-boys school in which I was teaching, I was told that there had been a bomb threat made on the school.  The school’s principal nonchalantly told me to check all my Tamil students for bombs (what I was to do if I found one was not made clear).  The boys in the class were gracious about the search and as soon as it was over, we were able to get on with the lesson.  Another teacher told me that the bomb threat had to be fake since the Tamil Tigers would never set a bomb off in a school with other Tamils.  I found this only nominally reassuring.  That same week some boys in the school had been arrested under suspicion of terrorism.  They had been taking pictures near a government building.  I never found out what happened to them.

A few years later the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated.  A few years after that I began to see Sri Lanka among various “top countries to travel to” lists.  I was happy for the country which had been so good to me, but I was also skeptical.  As I have previously written in another article, the danger I felt in Sri Lanka was minimal, despite all that was going on.  Even while I was checking backpacks for bombs, the danger seemed as real as it does when I step into the school in which I teach now.  But as for the peaceful fate of Sri Lanka, I kept thinking back to what I had been told, that the war would be at an end only until the families of the dead could enact their revenge.  And I also kept thinking back to a conversation I had with one of my Tamil students.

One Saturday a student came to visit me where I was staying.  This wasn’t unusual.  I was living with the LaSallian brothers who ran the school we taught in and so people were constantly coming in and out.  The boy, who was Tamil, came to just hang out.  He talked enthusiastically about being a boy scout and all the adventures he had had with them, he raved about cricket, his favorite sport, and he spoke with an air of pride of his father, a deceased Tamil Tiger general.  It was strange that this boy, who in a crew cut and flip flops seemed the stereotype of an adolescent boy, was the son of, essentially, a terrorist.  He explained that one day he would grow up and take over his father’s legacy with an innocence that one might talk about taking over his father’s hardware store.  He wanted nothing more than to make his father proud.

I was not surprised when I heard that bombs killed hundreds in Sri Lanka on Easter, but I was surprised to hear that it was Islamic terrorists, not Tamil Tigers, that set them off.  There was no major history of violence with Muslims in Sri Lanka, so far as I am aware.  But as I learned during my short stay on the island, Sri Lankans are both wonderfully tolerant of others and deeply proud of their own ethnicity.  Sometimes, dangerously proud. By now that boy must be in his mid-twenties and I hope that he has realized different dreams.  I hope that he hasn’t found a way to connect his Tamil “legacy” to ISIS.



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