Sri Lanka Research Trip

By: Arnav Patra

This week, we have made great progress with our research trip in Sri Lanka. The four of us have found contacts and begun interviews with a number of Sri Lankan leaders in business, nonprofit, policy and government circles.

Wednesday was a packed day of interviews and meetings. I began my day on Wednesday by joining Arjun for a visit with the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, a policy think tank focused on South Asia and international affairs. We had the opportunity to meet other undergraduate students working at RCSS, as well as the director, Professor Nayani Melegoda. The undergraduates from Sri Lanka shared with studying international relations in Sri Lanka is like and discussed Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, as Arjun is researching Sri Lankan foreign policy post Civil War. The other students showed us around the RCSS library and even shared some “crocodile buns” (traditional Sri Lankan bread with sugar shaped like a crocodile).

Next, I joined Sabah for an interview with Jezima Ismail, one of the most prominent Sri Lankan Muslim activists and the founder of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum. Sabah is studying the experiences of Muslim women in Sri Lanka, and Jezima gave her an overview of the history of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community drawing from her experience dating back to the 1950s. In
the course of her career in activism she led nearly 70 projects focused on women, education and the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Next, I led an interview with economist Dr. Roshan Perera who has worked with the central bank and is affiliated with the Advocata Institute think tank in Sri Lanka. I am studying the impacts of the pandemic and economic crisis on Sri Lanka’s small businesses. Dr. Perera provided insights into the difficulties faced by small businesses, including the difficulty of starting a small business prior to the crises Sri Lanka has faced in recent years. Dr. Perera also discussed how Sri Lanka compared with other countries in the region and the Global South, providing insights into lessons Sri Lanka can learn given the presence of the IMF and the recent economic crisis. We ended our day as a group by visiting Advocata, one of the premier economic
policy think tanks in Sri Lanka and meeting the CEO, Dhananath Fernando.

On Thursday, we had the chance to visit the United States Embassy in Colombo. We briefly met the Ambassador, Julie Chung and had a meeting with the Chief Economic and Political Officer, Susan Walke. While this was not a formal interview, visiting the embassy allowed us to learn about the American view on the issues we are all studying in Sri Lanka. The embassy recently opened a new building in September, showcasing beautiful Sri Lankan art, and has over 500 people working for it, both local Sri Lankans, and American diplomats. The embassy is also located on the waterfront of Colombo, and offers a beautiful view of the Indian Ocean, as well as the Colombo Port, which has been a center of geopolitical activity with competing Western, Chinese and Indian interests in Sri Lanka.

Following the embassy visit, I interviewed Shiran Fernando, an economist from the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, seeking to understand the views of an organization that represents the business sector in Sri Lanka. We wrapped up our day with dinner at the Jetwing hotel, recommended to us by a Sri Lankan classmate, with a great view of the Colombo skyline. With these days of interviews, all of us found new connections and perspectives on our topic areas and look forward to spending more time in Sri Lanka getting to know and understand this country with its unique place in the world right now.

Sri Lankan Connections

By: Sabah Lockhandwala

This morning we had breakfast with the Chairman of a Sri Lankan think tank and a consultant in Sri Lanka as a group. Our meeting helped contextualize the economic situation in Sri Lanka and what historical events led to the economic crisis last year (and gave us another opportunity to have hoppers, a popular Sri Lankan breakfast food Selomi introduced us to). We also had the chance to learn more about social issues within Sri Lanka’s civil society and how tensions have
changed throughout recent decades. From our conversation, I found the dissonance between policy goals and implementation strategy in Sri Lanka intriguing, as well as how facets of culture impact how a policy actualizes within a nation.

I also had some interviews related to my research. My research topic is about gendered Islamophobia in Sri Lanka and highlights how Muslim women face marginalization amidst nationalism, ethnoreligious polarization, and global trends of anti-Muslim racism. I spoke with Shreen Saroor, a human rights activist who initiated programs with the United Nations for the status of women in Sri Lanka. Her current work deals with Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, a counterterrorism policy implemented during the Sri Lankan civil war often used to target Tamil minority communities. Today, the TPA targets Muslim communities and imprisons Muslim people without cause or substantiated suspicion. Saroor works with those incarcerated by the TPA and secures lawyers, bail funds, and reintegration programming. In our interview, Saroor spoke about the gendered aspect of her current work. When women’s husbands or fathers are taken away under the TPA, women are left with minimal financial and social support. Additionally, they face social stigmatization by their neighbors, leaving Muslim women bearing the brunt of anti-Muslim policies. Saroor also advocated for changes within the Muslim community. For her, investing in women’s education, financial autonomy, and marital rights from a community level is just as important as investment from an institutional level like the Sri Lankan government.

Another enriching interview this weekend was with Ferial Ismail Ashraff, Sri Lanka’s first Muslim woman parliamentarian. Her husband founded the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, a political party advocating for Muslim rights in Sri Lanka. In our interview, Ashraff spoke about her experiences entering government as a Sri Lankan Muslim and the discrimination she faced for veiling and being Muslim in a post-9/11 society. Ashraff also spoke about her fears after the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, relaying how Muslim communities felt more targeted after the event institutionally and socially. In conversation with Ashraff, I also learned more about the status of women in general in Sri Lanka. She advocated for more reforms to engage women in the economy and politics. I appreciated the opportunity to learn about the Sri Lankan government and the Muslim community’s unique history with Sri Lankan parliament.

After everyone else’s interviews with professors, researchers, policymakers, and individuals in the private sector, we took the evening to explore Colombo. We all spent some time walking around the city and enjoying the warm weather we never find in Somerville. Arnav and I stumbled upon some local art galleries, where Sri Lankan artists depicted their perceptions of the Sri Lankan civil war, ongoing economic crisis, and internal migration. At dinner, we continued trying Sri Lankan food, such as spicy prawn curry, kottu, string hoppers, and everyone’s personal favorite–mari biscuit pudding.

First Days in Sri Lanka

Members of the SARC in Colombo, Sri Lanka

By: Arjun Bagur

Our stay in Sri Lanka began with lunch at the historic Tintagel hotel in Colombo, the former house of the first South Asian female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Our hotel was located in the heart of the city, with strong British and Dutch influences. While severely jet lagged, we reached out to local policy institutes and research organizations like Advocata and the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute. We conversed with Murtaza Jafferjee and Dhananath Fernando at Advocata, who scheduled interviews with various policy experts for the following week. Friday afternoon was spent on communications with various academics, activists, and civil society leaders like heads of non-profit organizations and human rights attorneys.

On Saturday we visited historic Galle and the surrounding areas, touring the old colonial battlements of Galle Fort and the Dutch Hospital district. We learnt much about the legacies of colonial rule, exemplified by the centuries-old fortifications and more surprisingly, a “Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie” (the Dutch East India Company)-themed cafe. In Galle, and many towns ‘down south’, local restaurants, bars, and cafés make a concerted effort to cater to European visitors. The economy of Sri Lanka had been hit hard by Covid-19, which gutted the tourism sector on the island. In an effort to attract tourists, especially wealthier ones who can afford to come to Sri Lanka, locals have put up signs in Russian and French. Despite the depredation caused by the pandemic, locals were friendly and conversational. At the Meera Masjid, workers in the mosque shared their experiences of being Muslim in Sri Lanka. They highlighted the differences in treatment in coastal communities versus inland communities, noting that coastal towns tended to be more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan, and therefore more harmonious. Galle Fort was a prime example of peaceful communitarian coexistence. However, the shadow of Covid-19 falls over the island as Sri Lankans lament the price of fuel due to the falling value of the Lankan rupee against the dollar. Inflation and unemployment have risen dramatically in the last few years, and it is especially apparent in the once-vibrant tourist towns of Bentota and Hikkaduwa.