How one Sri Lanka city stays above the ethnic fray

Tensions between two traditional opponents are kept in check - setting it apart from the divisions of other regions.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The only thing that slows traffic between Sri Lanka's capital and the heartland city of Kandy are the winding uphill roads. There are no checkpoints, no police, no soldiers pointing rifles - none of the security precautions, built up after years of ethnic conflict, that clutter roads heading farther north into ethnic Tamil strongholds.

But Kandy, too, has a significant Tamil population. The Tamil and Muslim minorities account for 20 percent of the population. Yet, Kandy, Sri Lanka's second largest city, doesn't have the simmering tensions between Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority like the capital, Colombo, whose ethnic composition is similar.

Kandy has stayed above the fray partly by occupying the geographic middle ground, making it difficult for the two warring factions - southern Buddhist hard-liners and the Tamil Tigers - to gain a foothold. Also, Tamils here are more economically dependent on the Sinhalese, dulling competition between the two groups.

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But cross-cultural respect also plays a role, with Tamils speaking Sinhalese and Buddhists recognizing a common Indian heritage with their Tamil neighbors.

"Twenty-five percent of the reason could be that there's no LTTE here," says R. Selvarani, a Tamil restaurant owner, referring to the Tamil Tiger organization. "Kandy politics is also much more moderate than [in] Colombo or the south."

If the militarism of the Tigers is absent from Tamils here, so is the dismissiveness of minority culture by the majority. Many Buddhist Sinhalese in Kandy acknowledge their Indian-Hindu influences.

"We, too, have Indian blood because 2,500 years ago our first king came from India. Our kings married Nayak [an Indian kingdom] women," says Wimal Ranasinghe. He adds that when he lived in Canada and California he adopted an Indian pronunciation for his name by dropping the final "e". His home altar has statues of the Buddha as well as Hindu gods, whom he says he has great faith in.

One of the few times Kandy saw bloodshed and violence was during widespread riots of 1983 which set off the ethnic war in Sri Lanka that still has not ended. However, rioting was less intense here and local Tamils have not bitterly nursed memories of the event, which remains a rallying cry in northern Sri Lanka.

Some attribute it to Kandy's sense of community. "Everybody knows each other here. It's a small town, so it's friendlier," says Selvarani. "We don't have so many people migrating to Kandy [as to Colombo]. Even if they come from other places, they have their roots here."

Residents of Kandy are also more educated than in other Sri Lankan cities and therefore more cultured, she says. "Most people here are educated. Even estate workers spend most of their time and money on education," she says.

The estate workers Selvarani refers to are Tamils whom the British brought from India as indentured laborers to work on Kandy's rolling tea plantations. Most of these Tamils of recent origin, as they're called in Sri Lankan census classifications, have lived in the country for three generations and have never been to India. They don't have much connection with northern Sri Lankan Tamil culture, either because even the Tamil they speak is different.

Nonetheless, this Tamil population does face considerable disadvantages: high dropout rates, alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. These Tamils of recent origin constitute two-thirds of the Tamil population in Kandy and their aspirations are much more mundane and immediate than Tamils in northern cities like Jaffna.

The basic goal of much of the plantation community is to move out of the estates to better living conditions.

"I'm sending my children to school so that they're not in the same situation," says Velan Asokan, a Tamil of recent Indian origin, who works in a boarding house.

Indeed, the estate Tamils pose less of an economic threat to the Sinhalese than the northern Tamils, whose ancestors played a dominant role in colonial times. The separatist war began when Sri Lanka's Constitution was changed to give the Sinhalese priority in jobs and education.

Modest rural economic ambitions on both ethnic sides have helped Kandy stay laid back, says Nadeera Abeykoon, an economics student. "Our needs are so limited. We don't want luxuries like Colombo.... We just want a calm and peaceful life."

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