Sri Lanka: the pain behind the smile | ministries

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Blog post | 02-08-2022 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Politically and socially, Sri Lanka has been in turmoil for some time. The population protests against the political elite and the lack of fuel, food and medicine. The recently departed Dutch ambassador Tanja Gonggerei: ‘After a long civil war, people here are, among other things, used to something. When I first moved here, I especially saw the people’s resilience and smiles. But behind the smile there is a lot of pain.’

What did you notice about Sri Lanka when you arrived in the country, about the people and the lifestyle?

“I arrived here with my family in 2019 after the Easter Sunday attacks which left 253 dead. These attacks were a great shock internationally and in Sri Lanka itself. I quickly noticed that people here are used to something. Thirty years of civil war and the aftermath of the tsunami in 2005 has left a deep mark. Upon arrival, I saw that Sri Lankans had largely returned to normal life after the terrible attacks, but the economic impact was still visible. Tourism was badly hit, but at that time, tourism quickly recovered, and that’s not surprising given the rich culture, heritage and stunningly beautiful scenery.’

‘Many Dutch people stayed here during the first corona wave. As an embassy, ​​we then entered into a dialogue with them: if you fall ill as a tourist, you occupy a hospital bed because of the already scarce resources.’

You have experienced the entire corona period in Sri Lanka and in recent months it has been turbulent in the country due to all sorts of shortages. How was this time for you, your family and the embassy?

‘It has not been an easy time. We have had lockdowns here for several months where my husband and children had to stay at home. Much stricter than the lockdowns in the Netherlands. The schools were closed for more than a year and a half. Most of the work at the embassy continued and we adapted to the new conditions. At the start of the first wave, there were many Dutch tourists here. Many left of their own accord, but many of them also stayed here. As an embassy, ​​we then entered into a dialogue with them: if you fall ill as a tourist, you occupy a hospital bed because of the already scarce resources.’

‘For us as an embassy, ​​like everyone else, it was a difficult time to work online. It has also yielded things. We started with weekly online coffee rounds with the employees on a specific theme, devised by the employees themselves. This led to very interesting conversations. Very valuable to us as a team and I learned a lot from it. This summer we are moving back to Europe (Gonggerei will be succeeded by the new ambassador Bonnie Horbach).’

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Ambassador Gongrijp during a working visit in corona time.

What are the main themes on which Sri Lanka and the Netherlands work together?

‘The cultural relationship between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka is important. The Netherlands colonized large parts of the island for a while, from 1658 to 1796. As a result, there is a lot of Dutch cultural heritage here: churches and fortresses. The Netherlands has great expertise when it comes to architecture, restoration and the role of heritage in spatial planning. We also support museum management training, for example on how to attract and involve the public.’

“Furthermore, our service to the many Dutch tourists is a large part of our work. In the field of sustainable trade and development, we support Dutch companies investing in Sri Lanka. We make contacts and provide entrepreneurs with information about doing business in Sri Lanka.’

“There are almost no women in parliament here. There is a lot of physical and verbal abuse against women. Together with local partners, we are trying to change this permanently.’

“We have several projects aimed at sustainability, for example to ensure healthy farmland and better quality and more diversity of crops on tea and coconut plantations. This makes Sri Lanka a more attractive trading partner for the Netherlands and Europe in terms of corporate responsibility.’

‘We also support human rights, especially women’s rights. As an embassy, ​​for example, we have supported an online talk show that tries to break through taboos such as abortion, LGBTIQ rights and sexually offensive behavior by discussing them. As the Dutch Embassy, ​​we want to have a sustainable influence here, for example in the area of ​​women’s rights. There are almost no women in parliament here. There is a lot of physical and verbal abuse against women. Together with local partners, we are trying to change this permanently.’

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Ambassador Gong Grab on his bicycle in Colombo on World Bicycle Day.

How do Sri Lankans view the ‘Dutch past’?

“Despite Holland’s focus on trade during the colonial period, our presence here has certainly had a wider impact. In addition to the cultural heritage, some legislation, such as the law of inheritance, has also been adopted from us. This is known here as the ‘Roman-Dutch law.’

‘Sri Lankans know the Netherlands well because of this past. As an embassy, ​​we also try to make the dark side of this colonial past open for discussion. For example in speeches. People often react with surprise to this, but the openness has a positive effect. Sri Lankans appreciate this transparency and I also believe we can and should learn from the past together.’

‘Food safety is becoming a big issue here in Sri Lanka.’

Sri Lanka has been in turmoil recently and government buildings were stormed in July. What are the causes of these riots?

‘Sri Lanka is going through a deep economic crisis; there are severe shortages of fuel, medicine and food, and prices are rising rapidly. Food safety is really becoming a big issue here. The poorest experience this first hand. There is social unrest due to the poor economic situation, but Sri Lankans, especially young people, are also demanding political reforms.’

You and your family are going back to Europe this summer. How do you look back on your time in Sri Lanka?

As a beautiful, educational and also quite challenging time due to the shutdowns. I am proud of our team at the embassy who continued to work despite difficult circumstances and achieved great results.’

»My image of Sri Lanka has changed. The country is going through a difficult time. When I arrived here, I especially saw people’s resilience, smiles and flexibility. But I learned the pain behind that smile. The pain of years of conflict, discrimination and increasing poverty. There is also a limit to what resilient people can endure’.

‘At the same time I have seen many wonderful things in this extreme country. And I hope that the situation for Sri Lankans improves and that there is more space for the beauty of this special island.’

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