Tea. Devil masks. The dyeing of batik cloth. Panels of rice and curry, sweetmeats and sambol, described as exotic! It took me about 20 minutes to complete a tour of the Sri Lankan pavilion at Expo 2020 and this is what I remember the most.
I’m not certain what I expected from my country’s pavilion. I knew it was impossible that our entire history and culture would be accurately represented and treated with care, especially since official government narratives dismiss and deny much of the darker periods, silencing the voices of those who are already excluded from conversations about the nation and belonging. Yet, to see the complexities and complications of our lived realities reduced to tropes that served only to exoticize us, mystify our culture, architecture and even food, in order to attract as many tourists as possible, was jarring and uncomfortable. It was selective extraction, displaying our best and brightest while intentionally hiding the labour and loss that led to these attractions.
Sri Lanka is the fourth largest producer of tea in the world, contributing 6.5% of global production
and bringing in a significant amount of valuable foreign exchange. Tea production is also important on a local level: around a million people in Sri Lanka are directly and indirectly employed in the tea industry which supports the livelihoods of marginalized communities in estates and remote rural areas. But the ubiquitous presence of tea in Sri Lanka is one born out of colonialism and it manifests itself today in discriminatory and violent practices.
With the collapse of the coffee enterprise in the early 1880s, tea was introduced to (read: forced upon) the local community by the British Empire, who had subjugated the entire island since 1815, as a way to salvage the colonial economy. Tamils from the South of India were “brought” to Sri Lanka to work on the tea plantations, were treated as second-class citizens and forced to labour for hours doing monotonous work in the central highlands. When Ceylon, as it was known then, gained independence in 1948, the precarious position of “Indian Tamils” became even more unstable. They were treated as temporary migrants, as foreigners living on native land and were denied citizenship until the 1980s. While their legal status has changed since then, they still remain one of the most impoverished and vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka. For example, to earn their daily wage of 700 LKR, a worker has to pluck at least 40 pounds of tea leaves. If they’re unable to do so, their wage is cut in half
regardless of the number of hours they spend plucking tea leaves. And since they’re daily wage labourers, the loss of even a single day’s salary significantly affects the plantation worker and their family’s ability to meet basic needs
None of this was even remotely alluded to in the pavilion. Instead, my friends and I were treated to a cup of strong tea by women wearing the traditional saree and employed by the Ceylon Tea Board. The consistent erasure of those who produce, under arduous conditions, the goods that uplift our economy is not a new phenomenon.
I understand that by virtue of having a global platform at Expo, nations such as mine which belong to the Global South and are economically and politically disadvantaged when compared to more hegemonic countries, are always miles behind. By the time I reached the Sri Lankan pavilion, I had walked past many others: India, Pakistan, China, Russia. These were massive pavilions, each constructed in a unique style, surrounded by hundreds of people waiting to enter. I almost missed the entrance to the Sri Lankan pavilion, which was housed in a single block shared with multiple other countries.
As has been written about previously
in The Gazelle, these platforms only reinforce the inequalities present when comparing countries on a global scale. I wasn’t surprised that the Sri Lankan pavilion resembled a museum gift shop, with our culture and traditions stripped down to their most reductive and thus attractive self. We didn’t have the space to fully address the reality of contemporary Sri Lanka. But my deeper fear lies in the fact that, even with the little space we had, we chose to create a hierarchy of belonging and in doing so reproduced the inequality of platforms like Expo within a more localized context. We took the labor of a community as vulnerable and as exploited as the tea plantation workers, erased their presence to lure in tourists with steaming cups of tea and actively excluded them from our official state narratives.
This erasure extended beyond tea plantation workers. The lack of representation afforded to minoritized communities in Sri Lanka was apparent throughout the entire pavilion.
We pride ourselves on our diversity: our multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multireligious community always makes it to the travel brochures displaying four young children, each wearing the traditional clothes of the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. But in that pavilion, the hierarchy of belonging was apparent. From the devil masks to the getaberaya to the sandhakadapahana to the images of kokis and kavum on display, Sinhalese-Buddhist history and culture dominated wherever I looked. There was little to no representation of the culture and traditions of Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka. The Hindu and Christian communities were afforded no real space.
I am aware, as I write this, that I’ve failed to mention the cultures and identities born out of and constantly reimagined through the intersections of these ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. The nuances of our lived experiences were overshadowed by the prominence given to Sinhalese-Buddhist culture, as has always been the case. And this dangerously feeds into and reinforces the overwhelming rhetoric that establishes Sinhalese-Buddhists as the quintessential Sri Lankan. The fact that these are the state narratives presented to foreigners at a time when Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism is at its peak is grossly irresponsible.
Ours is a fractured and fragmented society and it is beyond the scope of this article to list the exclusion, violence and bloodshed that marked much of our history. But by refusing to acknowledge these histories of exclusion and violence, we refuse to see how they play out in contemporary Sri Lanka. In doing so, we create a distorted image of reality, one that is intentionally and consistently skewed in the favour of those who always hold the power.
Githmi Rabel is Senior Opinion Editor. Email her at email@example.com.