*(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?*