From Rural Sri Lanka, Solidarity for Gaza and American Students Protesting for Palestine

Kokawewa Sumedha ‘Thera’ at the Sri Purvaramaya Viharaya Buddhist temple: “Do unto others what you will do unto yourself“. Reverberations of America’s campus protests are felt in a remote rural area in the middle of a jungle in the heart of an island nation at the cusp of Southasia and the Indian Ocean. A country may believe it wins something by killing people but can anything be as valuable as human life?’ Photo by Ben Samarasinghe

Sapan News Ripples of the student protests in America calling for divestment from Israel and an end to the violence on Palestine are being felt in a remote village in the heart of rural Sri Lanka.

“What gives America the right to lecture us on human rights when their police are beating up brown students protesting for innocent Palestinians?” asks Kokawewa Sumedha, known respectfully as the Thera (Buddhist monk), in a historic village called Dutuwewa, in the Anuradhapura District in Sri Lanka’s North-Central Province.

The village is named after Sri Lanka’s hero King Dutugemunu who ruled from 161 to 137 BC. He is said to have founded the place while traveling, after his tethered horse broke loose and was found grazing here.

We’re sitting on a stone bench lining the verandah of the Thera’s residential dwelling at the premises of the Sri Purvaramaya Viharaya, Kokawewa, Gataleva, the Buddhist temple that the Thera has served for 25 years. The oppressive heat and din of the crickets from the surrounding jungle, known for its wild elephants, are a world away from the centres of power.

“Today, we see conflicts between various powerful countries which dominate less powerful countries in the Third World,” says the monk, soft spoken and mild mannered, exuding a quiet confidence. 

How can certain countries criticise others for their human rights records, he questioned, while those “like Israel” that are allies of powerful states “get away scot-free with whatever they do, even killing innocent civilians in places like Palestine.”

“Is this fair? Have the human rights of those civilians been protected? Why doesn’t the US speak up for them?” He ignores his cell phone ringing inside the building, then finally excuses himself to take a call. 

Kokawewa Sumedha ‘Thera’: “Hatred cannot end hatred”. Photo by Ben Samarasinghe.

Asked what primary message he’d like to give the world, he quotes the Buddha’s sayings “Nahi Verena Verani” (“Hatred cannot end hatred”), to do unto others what you will do unto yourself.

Amila Sampath, a farmer we had talked to earlier, has strolled up as we’re talking to the head monk and listens intently. Sampath, 30, is among the 300 or so devotees of the temple, in this predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist community.

Sampath’s higher secondary education, grade 11, is fairly typical in a country with an adult literacy rate of 92% – the highest in the region. He carries a smart phone and looks up our articles on the Internet, reading them via Google translate.

His five-year old daughter studies in a government school nearby, where the principal is Sampath’s former teacher. 

The principal, like the other villagers, with the exception of the monks, also belongs to a farming family, growing rice, corn, and other staples that saw Sri Lanka’s villagers through the harsh times brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent economic crisis that the country is slowly emerging from. Even those who serve as government officers, policemen, and teachers, cultivate patches of land, their own or leased. Entire families participate in the farming activities that feed them and give them a livelihood. 

Many also served in the military during the 26-year war (1983-2009) between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil population, which brought about some 60,000 casualties. This year marks 15 years since the conflict officially ended on May 18, 2009. Many Tamils commemorate it as a ‘day of destruction’. The Sinhala-dominated state marks May 19 as ‘Victory Day’. 

Dutuwewa lies at the frontlines of the war that roiled Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces for three decades. Many villagers here enlisted to fight against the LTTE. Sampath’s uncle served as a special forces officer for two and a half years, and a cousin also served in the army after failing his ‘O’ levels. 

The Gaza conflict racks up traumatic memories of that war. The overwhelming sentiment is that peace should prevail. 

Amila Sampath: “Can anything be as valuable as human life?” Photo by Ben Samarasinghe.

While the end of the war led to a resurgence in triumphalist rhetoric across the country, things have changed dramatically over the years. This emerges strongly in Sri Lankans’ response to what’s happening in Gaza, and how Western governments are responding to pro-Palestine university protesters. 

“As Sri Lankans, we feel amused at the duplicity we see,” says Sampath. “None of us likes war. A country may believe it wins something by killing people but can anything be as valuable as human life?”

Dutuwewa’s villagers feel disturbed by the images of police officers beating up students in America. They see Western embassies being quick to condemn governments in countries like Sri Lanka for suppressing protests, while Western governments, particularly the US, have deployed armed forces and police officials against pro-Palestine protesters.

In places like Dutuwewa, this is seen as hypocrisy on the part of the West.

That has only strengthened solidarity with Palestine across Sri Lanka, as elsewhere. Earlier last year, Al-Jazeera reported that businesses here were raising funds for Palestine. 

The capital Colombo has seen several protests in support of Palestine, including in front of Western embassies and the United Nations compound.

Days before Sri Lankans commemorate the end of the civil war, various events in the country including by the Free Palestine Movement of Sri Lanka, will mark Nakba Day, May 15, mourned by Palestinians as the day of their collective displacement in 1948, which corresponded with the establishment of the state of Israel. 

That villagers in remote areas echo these sentiments, cutting across ethnic and religious barriers, shows how sympathy for the Palestinians and for the protestors on American campuses is not limited to academic or elite circles – the issue impacts the most unlikely communities in the most unlikely places.

Beena Sarwar is the Boston-based founder and editor of Sapan News, in Sri Lanka for a reporting project on ‘Sri Lanka: Beyond the Headlines’ supported by the Pulitzer Center. Uditha Devapriya is Chief International Analyst at Factum, a foreign policy think-tank based in Colombo. The quotes included in this story are approximate translations of conversations conducted in Sinhala.