Sri Lanka vs Darfur: How We Read Conflict

*(reader note: since lots of my recent traffic seems to have an infants sense of irony, I’m marking anything I said ironic  with asterisks. ****)

I was asked in an interview recently why the Sri Lankan conflict (which has about 1/2 the deaths + 1/3 of the refugees of the Darfur crisis – 95% of the international attention) doesn’t get more press. Upon realizing that I knew the answer and could articulate it, I felt at once elated, depressed and fucking nerdy. I also felt a deep and abiding need to share.

1) Sri Lanka has precisely  * zero * strategic interest for anyone, ever (except India).
The island, though rich in culture, history, and foliage, lacks the natural resources of a place like, say Burma. As an island it borders nothing, and so threatens little. The only people Sri Lanka ever menaces are Indians, though they do that to great effect, since at least the time of the Ramayan, when the demon Ravaana came up out of its jungles to wreck Bible-style havoc. The Tamil refugee crisis has sparked civil unrest in India’s southernmost state, where the entire parlament resigned late last year to protest Delhi’s not doing of things. Then again, Tamil Tigers killed Rajiv Gandhi, so maybe it was, like, a thing. On the third hand, India’s protracted elections will probably reflect, at least in part, Tamil Nadu’s increasing distress at Delhi’s cold shoulder.

2) This is a really, really long war.
The most recent phase began shortly after the December 2004 tsunami, ending a 2002 truce. But Sri Lanka’s war with the Tigers has raged for 25 years, making it Asia’s longest conflict. Signs were clear and swift that things were going south by September of last year when the government booted NGOs and foreign press, but even bright eyes get tired. The New York Times had nobody in Colombo at the time, and now they never (at least for the duration of the conflict) will.

3) Most American readers don’t even know where Sri Lanka is.
Worse, they don’t know what it looks like.  If you tell people that Sudan is in Africa, they think about what they know of Africa (AIDS, poverty, violence, jungles/desert and really thin people) and Darfur fits the mold. It doesn’t matter to them whether it’s east/west/north/south because their picture is the same. Even then, and despite the fact that the country’s North/South war was covered extensively for DECADES in the mainstream media, it still took eons for people to understand enough about Darfur that reporters didn’t have to explain the conflict again in every article and could instead report, you know, the news. But if you try to explain to people in one breath where Sri Lanka is, who the people there are most like and why the hell they’re fighting, you’ll expire. *Darfur=farmers killed by nomads/land. Sri Lanka = ? * (in case you are tone deaf or quasi iliterate, this refers to the way in which the media and american readers treat Sri Lanka, not, OBVIOUSLY, my personal opinion.)

4) * Christians vs. Muslims, I get. Heck, anyone vs. Muslims, I get. But Hindus vs. Buddhists? Huh??? *

(WARNING: CONTINUING TO READ THIS POST REQUIRES THAT YOU UNDERSTAND IRONY, AND CAN READ THE WORD MEDIA NARRATIVE)
Or, put another way: Although it is universally much more complicated, we like our conflicts boiled down to their simplest parts, preferably ones already drawn into our BREAKING NEWS MadLib. These include but are not limited to: right vs. left (as in the West) , rich vs. poor (as in Latin America),  East vs. West (as in orientalism) and the vaunted Christians vs. Muslims. These are not narratives I made up. This is the work of USA Today and other newspapers for idiots. I am just explaining it to you.

Here, Darfur fits beautifully. (If Darfur were a popstar and Christain vs. Muslim were a brand of jeans, we’d say she’d been poured into them).  The peaceful farming villagers are Christians, their nomadic attackers Muslims. Make no mistake, this is perfectly true. It is also, in my humble opinion, the No. 1 reason Darfur became—I feel dirty even saying this, but it’s also true—a popular cause. Yes, we’re talking about a clear cut case of ethnic cleansing, a definite genocide. But genocides are more common than we like to think, and certainly what’s happening in Darfur is no more horrific than what’s going on in the Congo.

Listen, media coverage of a far-flung conflict, especially in this market, takes a critical mass of eyeballs. The only way that eyeballs (and the people behind them) invest in reading about a new conflict is if it’s a) incredibly fucking important, as in about to explode over the border—and so far even that has trouble attracting attention or b) already a kinda familiar. Christians vs Muslims goes back to the Crusades…

Hindus vs Buddhists, not so much. Not to us anyway. Yet that’s how the conflict has billed itself for at least the last decade, (before that it was about mostly lanuage)  mostly for internal political gain. The problem for the big news organizations is that Americans can hardly deal with Hindus when they’re vs Muslims. I don’t think most Americans realize that there is even such a thing as radical nationalist Buddhism. And yet, it is one of the driving forces behind Sinhalese domination of the Tamil minority.

*Given all that, where would you put your reporter?*

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2 Comments

Filed under 3rd World Imagineering, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, India, it's a small world, Religion, Sri Lanka, United Nations

2 responses to “Sri Lanka vs Darfur: How We Read Conflict

  1. This blog post contains a significant amount of misinformation. Please see my responses to each of your points below:

    1) A number of countries have strategic interests in Sri Lanka, as they have for hundreds of years. Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee Harbor is one of the most valuable ports in the world both in terms of military and trade interests. The Portuguese, Dutch and British all fought each other over it during colonialism. At the moment, the US in particular has an economic interest in remaining friendly with the Sri Lankan government because access to Trincomalee will allow it to establish much more financially efficient trade routes. See: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/FA31Df02.html for more information.

    2) Though the conflict in Sri Lanka has been going on for 26 years, it only became a full-fledged genocide in January 2009. That’s less than 4 months. The situation is similar to Rwanda, where the civil war started in 1986, but the genocide didn’t occur until 1994 (and once the genocide started, it happened very quickly- 800,000 people were killed in 90 days).

    3) Sri Lanka= South of India, oppressed minority wants their own country. See- not too difficult.

    4) Sri Lanka is primarily an ethnic conflict, not a religious one. While religion is, in fact, relevant in terms of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, a brief overview of the conflict doesn’t require religious analysis by any means.

    The lack of media attention has much more to do with the Sri Lankan government’s brutal media oppression. Reporters without Borders recently named it the fourth most dangerous country in the world to be a reporter- only Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia are worse. Any local journalist who says something the government doesn’t like is killed, and foreign journalists are deported. No journalists or foreigners are allowed into the conflict zone, which makes it a lot easier for the government to commit genocide relatively quietly.
    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/world/asia/05lanka.html?_r=2 for more information.

    The misinformation in your blog post is potentially counterproductive to much needed efforts to encourage international pressure on the Sri Lankan government to stop slaughtering civilians. The rate that they are killing civilians is rapidly accelerating- over 1,000 civilians were killed on Monday alone. Please do your homework in the future.

    • 3rdworldimagineer

      HI Jessica,
      Thanks very much for your comment. I’d like you to try to understand that I’m being tongue in cheek, and that only by analyzing why people don’t pay more attention to something can we help them learn to pay attention to it. Still, I think It’s very important to post, but first I’d like to clarify some of the points you’ve made, and explain that I’ve been writing about Sri Lanka for a long time, so everything I would like to include doesn’t always get into one post.
      1)Yes, the colonial powers fought over Sri Lanka, but colonialism is, when i last checked, over. When I say strategic interests, I’m using it in the UN sense. The United States has a strategic interest in Pakistan, because of the war in Afghanistan. It has a strategic interest in Israel because Israel fights a lot of its proxy battles. Trade routes, though important, are not a reason the U.S. would intercede.
      2) It is very, very thorny to call what is happening in Sri Lanka, even since January, a genocide. Just because that’s when M.I.A. did it… I don’t disagree for one second that massive loss of civilian life should be condemned, but I don’t see why the UN should need a genocide before it steps in to save people who are suffering and dying. When the dust clears and international reporters are allowed back upcountry, we may find that some elements of ethnic cleansing have occurred. But it’s more likely that what we see is a total and willful disregard for all human life at all costs. As an international community, we must insist that genocide maintains a strict and commonly held definition, and that the shoe fits before we cram it on.
      3) I use equations as jokes, and it’s clear that some people don’t get it. If you read the post, you would see I’m trying to describe a “media narrative” the way that a story is told to the public, and not my own understanding of it. I will go back and mark jokes with asterisks, so there’s no more confusion. Also, why is it that no one questions why every minority on earth should have it’s own country? The Tamils have serious grievances, but why has everyone ruled out a negotiated peace? What about all the OTHER minorities in Sri Lanka? Aren’t nationstates also over? What happened to pluralism? People???
      3) Ditto above I KNOW Sri Lanka is an ethnic conflict, which is why i included that line about how it used to be about language and now it’s about religion, which serves the purpose of Buddhist nationalism. But what I was trying to help my readers understand is that the newsmedia uses pre established narratives, generally and specifically in this case, of religious conflict in order to explain everything from Chechnya to the Balkans to Darfur. This is what THEY are doing. I’m just explaining it.
      And I completely disagree with you that we’re not covering it because we can’t. That simply isn’t true. THere are plenty of places that Journalists can’t go (Cuba, under the just-repealed Bush laws, for example)…it makes things harder, but it’s never stopped anyone who thought there was an important story to tell there. If you look at many newspapers, including the New York Times, they cover Sri Lanka from Delhi. In January, they put someone in Colombo because M.I.A. got nominated for the Oscar. Then that guy left, and now they can’t put anyone back in because their visa was denied. They still file from Delhi every day, something they used to do out of laziness and apathy. You are absolutely right, as I have been writing since it began, NGOs and foreign reporters have been missing from up country and we have nobody witnessing. But if you bandy about the word genocide before its clear that it is one, it is you who will ultimately harm the cause. It doesn’t have to be a genocide to be wrong, people.

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