Sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is ubiquitous. Are women safe?

Shocking statistics abound, yet travel bloggers, tourist boards and travel agencies are ardent in their praise of Sri Lanka’s invariably hospitable locals. We have a duty to inform.

The argument: Basically, it should be possible for a young woman, “modestly” clad or otherwise, to travel independently around a country without exeriencing sexual harassment, be it in the form of physical abuse or verbal assault. In a country known for its pristine beaches, verdant forests and luscious flora–perhaps, above all, its welcoming locals–it is important to note what goes on beneath the surface, and how sexual harassment in Sri Lanka affects all who live there.

Note: Ninety per cent experience sexual harassment in Sri Lanka

It is a shocking statistic, one that many would choose to disbelieve. 90% of Sri Lanka’s women have endured some kind of sexual harassment on public transport, against a global estimate of 1 in 3 women. It is the highest rate in South Asia. Conversely, according to a 2013 UN study just one third of Sri Lankan men admit to having carried out an act of physical or sexual violence against a woman. 3% are arrested.

But statistics often fail where a personal, targeted anecdote will succeed. Statistics are shocking but rarely incite behavioural or ideological changes. The mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang Province is shocking, but persists in part because of deliberate blind-spotting; the number of people reliant on foodbanks in the UK is shocking, but policy changes are not forthcoming.

People become rape apologists when they say things like she should not have worn those clothes, or she was drunk—she was asking for it. These familiar statements are almost never spoken by women, let alone sufferers of abuse. Why? Because shared experience, or, failing that, mutual understanding, leads to solidarity.

A rape apologist changes his tune

We have three levels of kinship: small [intimate—family], medium [associative—community] and large [distant/extensive—race, country, religion]. Statistics appeal to the broadest of social circles, and garner an academic response.

My connection to the UK is vague, so my response to an issue like homelessness in the UK, when presented in terms of statistics, is just so. Narrating isolated incidents is more affective. Localised and personal, a story is more likely to strike an emotional chord; it establishes humanness, but it does not guarantee the element of community. Hearing about the brutal murder of two touring cyclists in Mexico in June last year sent shivers down my spine because I was cycle-touring at the time. If I read about it now, my response would be more distant.

The surest way to generate an emotive reaction is to make something about the inner circle—it is a matter of framing. People care about themselves and their families. Quote stats to Tom, Dick or Harry and you are likely to receive glazed eyes and excuses.

What if was your daughter?
Then I’d kill him.

It happens like this. If a family member is on the line, no counter response is too severe.

Selective offence-taking

Taking something personally (offence) depends on ones investment in an idea. Anyone who has received abuse on the basis of something particular (race, gender, sexuality, disability) shows solidarity with the other members of their clan. They are committed to the idea; it is something integral to their identity. Feminists are committed to the ideal of equality of opportunity among all genders—therefore the abuse of women is offensive. It is an effrontery. Islamophobia offends devout Muslims because they are emotionally committed to the idea of Islam: Allah, Mohammed, the Qu’ran—these are sacrosanct. For trans people, being trans is very important. The oppressed defend each other because of their need for mutual solidarity.

Piquing the interest of straight men in what are perceived to be “women’s issues”—sexual harassment, misogyny, domestic abuse—can be bizarrely challenging. “Causes” like feminism, trans rights, or pro-choice campaigns are of no interest, because they seek to increase representation for members of other clans. Sexual violence statistics are shrugged off because they are just that—statistics. However, ask this man how he would react if it was his sister, or his mother or daughter, and a switch will flick.

Assaults on Sri Lankan women, whether by family members or uniformed officers, are widespread, and should offend us all. Yet somehow they slip off the radar. These women live in a culture which grants immunity to many predatory men. While this is certainly the case in much of the world – rape cases are notoriously unreported, and seldom lead to prosecution – the proportions seem magnified in Sri Lanka.

Infographic containing sexual harassment statistics for Sri Lanka
Image credit: Sri Lanka Brief

Are we really living in paradise?

Sri Lanka is frequently hailed as a slice of heaven, the ‘Wonder of Asia’. This level of praise is to be expected from those who have a vested interest in increasing tourist traffic, i.e., business owners. But bloggers are at it too, lauding Sri Lanka as the perfect destination for young women (and men) to come and reconnect with nature.

But given the statistics regarding sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, should this not come with a caveat? Leafing through articles dealing specifically with whether or not Sri Lanka is a safe place for solo female travellers, it is deeply surprising to find such consistent disparities between point-blank assertions of paradisal safety and the reality I have come to know.

The increasing role, and importance, of social media reportage

On social media, everyone has a voice. There are democratic platforms where perpetrators of sexual violence can be called out directly by their victims. Solidarity can be established. This is where the truth emerges.

A recent post on the subject, in an expat group on Facebook, has received a lot of attention. Dated 10th June 2019, the original post details a series of incidents of harassment experienced by the poster’s partner, and asks how often the (mostly foreign) female members of the group encounter sexual harassment here in Sri Lanka. Responses almost invariably expressed solidarity. Many were vocal with words of support, or offered their own experiences.

To quote a few:

“I don’t trust men here at all”; “I feel her pain”; “Sri Lanka is the first [on my] list of sexual harassment problems”; “Having travelled extensively and lived in several countries I’ve never experienced this as much as in Sri Lanka. Pls don’t put your head in the sand, it’s a known issue here that needs to be addressed”; “Women should not have to be covered completely to avoid this vulgar stupidity”; “This country is the pits […] So tired”; “Every day. I can’t even walk to the shop 50 meters away without getting some”; “It’s a daily struggle”; “I only go out with my husband”; “All. The. Fucking. Time”; “It’s every time I visit Sri Lanka, the amount of sexual advances men make is numerous”

and so on. Let it be noted that there are severer denigrations of the culture here which I have elected to omit—likewise, there are women who have not experienced problems. The quoted passages are, in truth, the modal average. They are in the majority.

I was there for 3 months and experienced this on a regular basis… the landlord’s relative would sneak into the house in broad daylight just to “talk to me” and would follow me everywhere. At first id be polite but when I raised my voice and told him to F off he tried to block me with his bike. Not to mention the time he broke into the gates of the house I was staying at in the middle of the night and tried to steal my things off my windowsill/watch me sleep […] Verbal harassment daily, I couldn’t go to the beach alone…

Reading these drove the point home to me, personally, in a way that an article on a news website does not. It is something to do with being part of an actual, active community. I do not know these people personally, but feel tied to them, experientially. Similarly, hearing the experiences of friends here actualises the problem in a way a statistic does not.

One comment stuck out to me, and resonated with Laura.

After two years there, [I am] living elsewhere now and realizing how much it made an imprint on me. Half a year later and I’m still walking around in a much safer country with my walls up, dressing more conservatively, carrying anger when I don’t need to point it at anyone.

This is a culture which rubs off on people, creating lasting effects on behaviour, openness and personal security. Besides these, I have heard personal accounts of hit-and-run groping, motorbike drivers who swerve towards and grab at someone’s body before speeding off; hotel owners persistently offering massages or requesting to teach the Kama Sutra to a single woman in her bedroom; a jogger being pursued onto the beach by an unknown man; the list goes on.

Selective advertising

Contrary to a position held by many online writers, sexual harassment (from untoward attention to physical assault) is the rule, not the exception. Some argue that ‘dressing modestly helps’, but the evidence also contradicts this. One woman I spoke to has been groped in plain sight, while wearing jeans and a long sleeve top. That modesty helps is a truism, a platitude, and as such is meaningless.

People write with ostensible authority about how safe Sri Lanka is for women after spending a week on the island. It seems pertinent to consider how much one can learn of a country in a week, and how much safety depends on financial insulation. No doubt many of those who can afford to stay in resorts, and pay drivers, have no problems at all. It is those who cannot pay for this treatment who are more vulnerable.

Yes, Sri Lankan bus rides are part of the *authentic experience*, but if that authentic experience involves a man rubbing his groin on your shoulder for two hours, perhaps it is worth foregoing

Reporting sexual harassment

While there are relatively few published accounts, incidents of harassment/abuse concerning foreigners are real, and troubling. What’s more, given their scarcity, it is a duty of those selling the Sri Lankan experience not to gloss over them.

Rarely covered, rarely reported. Why?

Submitting oneself to Sri Lanka’s legal process is an ordeal most tourists and expats (and, I imagine, local women) would rather avoid. The simple act of reporting can be torturous. One woman wrote of her experience reaching out for help from four police officers at the front desk of a police station. They heard her out and laughed, ‘as if I had just told them a joke’. When the tuktuk driver who had attempted to assault her entered the police station demanding she pay him for the journey, the officers told her she would have to ‘stay with them’ if she did not pay her would-be assaulter. ‘This is why the women rarely report incidents to the police.’

Grandiose actions taken by the Sri Lankan authorities do little to solve the real issues. After Dutch tourists were brutally assaulted on Mirissa beach in 2018, the government responded with a sweeping gesture. Much of the beach infrastructure was bulldozed in a morass of short-sighted problem-solving. 100 police officers, 24 Anti-Riot Squad personnel and a water cannon, as well as several teams of Special Task Force personnel, were deployed to oversee the demolition and prevent any protest.

It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: the collateral damage was huge, and unnecessary. Innocent people lost businesses and the town suffered because tourists had nothing to stay for. Such token gestures are big on pomp and circumstance, and little on tackling the cause—a lack of sex education and a society which marginalises (devoices) women.

Why does this continue to happen?

It’s the last thing that this island needs right now is bad press and a few dumb idiots chasing away the few tourists we have.

Sri Lanka is still reeling from a spray of coordinated attacks by religious radicals. As tourist numbers begin, at last, to climb, and business owners put out calls to repopulate their hotels and cafes (“for the good of the country”), it is imperative that the sexual predators of this country do not go unnoticed. For this to happen, duties need to be fulfilled.

Bloggers have a duty to inform incoming tourists of the statistics, as giving out rose tinted glasses to young women on journeys of self-discovery can encourage naivety and feed the opportunism of their would-be antagonists. Residents and tourists alike, male and female, foreign and native, have a duty of care to each other. Foreign offices must acknowledge the prevalence of sexual harassment, as should informative sites like Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and Trip Advisor. These are also truths that should be circulated in expat communities, so that incomers understand the environment they are committing to living in.

But the real onus to change lies with the men who perpetuate a culture which freely oppresses women’s freedoms. This includes the police officers who discredit the testimonies of the women who come to them for support; anyone who witnesses anything and fails to call it out; anyone who does not apply pressure to a brother or friend to change their behaviour. Seen from any angle, the verbal and/or physical harassment of people based on their sex is socially backwards. Quashing it requires a push from all sides.

Tackling the symptoms

Sri Lankan women, at least in the provinces, endure silently, while foreigners lack the wherewithal to penetrate a self-protecting system. Fortunately, the ball is rolling on policymaking, and change is on its way, but campaigns like ‘Not On My Bus’ need nationwide (not just metropolitan) publicity, and legitimacy.

Combating sexual harassment requires a two-pronged approach. Not only is it necessary to give voice to victims—all victims—by inviting claimants to come forward and treating claimants with compassion, not disdain. Perpetrators must be brought to account. Police officers who would rather laugh at victims than help them are guilty and should be reported, because they create an environment in which it is impossible to pursue justice. The man on the bus who, while pretending to be asleep, repeatedly touches the thigh of the woman sitting next to him, is guilty, and should change his behaviour. Colombo’s mayor understands that this is a “national issue”—the country needs to understand this too. Zero tolerance. Don’t be a bystander. #CreateAScene.

Addressing the cause

This is how problems are really solved. Sex education here is basic. A 2013 study by the Family Health Bureau found 50% of young people in Sri Lanka had limited knowledge about sexual reproduction and health. Less than half of girls knew that pregnancy can result from the first sexual intercourse; many across the board failed to answer basic questions about reproductive health. It has been called a ‘sexual emergency’.

According to independent sexual health consultant Peter Gordon, sex(uality) education has a number of clear mutually reinforcing objectives:

  • Increase knowledge and understanding (about sex and the law, the nature of abuse and how to address it);
  • Explore and clarify feelings, values and attitudes (developing self-esteem, pride in one’s body);
  • Develop or reinforce skills (saying “no”, resisting pressure);
  • Promote and sustain risk-reducing behaviour.

Educators are in a position of great power and responsibility when it comes to the development of children’s attitudes to fundamental social issues. Suitably trained, they could make up for lost time, regarding those children who receive no sexual education at home. Furthermore, they can facilitate open and safe discussion spaces, in schools, in which children and young people can come to terms with: a) the attitudes they absorb from the media they subconsciously consume, b) the sexual naivety of their peers, and c) the fact of their own humanness, their history and physiology.

Addressing domestic abuse and sexual violence in a curricular context brings these issues to the surface, and assures would-be victims of the prevalence of the issue—it establishes a nationwide support network. It also informs the would-be perpetrators of the traumas these practices can induce. There is a future in which no part of society is oppressed because of their sex, sexuality or sexual decisions. Informing the national dialogue on these subjects may well be the key to unlocking that future.

Further reading:
Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women
CCD removes 21 illegal structures along Mirissa beach
UN Women: Asia and the Pacific


This article also appears on Medium, along with several others.
Read more stories from the ground about police harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast (originally published on Travelista)

How to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy a liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism. Do not drop your guard.

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism. Do not drop your guard.

Ella panorama

Sandy beaches and coconut trees are a dime a dozen on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Many praise the ‘Wonder of Asia’ for its verdant jungles, luscious flora and elephantine fauna. Indeed, there is something to suit every person, every taste: romantic lagoon retreats for couples, backpackers’ hostels for the solo traveller, five star hotels for the affluent and honeymooners. The question is, can you luxuriate ethically? How easy is it to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka?

The beaten path is well trodden. Kite surfers go to Kalpitiya, surfers to Weligama or Arugam Bay and history seekers flock to Anuradhapura, the sacred city, and Sigiriya, one of the world’s many ‘Eighth Wonders’, for Lion’s Rock. For less than a day’s salary in some parts of the world, you can find yourself in the back of a jeep, inches from the lowly flapping ears of an Elephas maximus (Sri Lankan elephant).

Such activities are well and good—they are well infrastructured and cater to the taste buds of tourists. However, those who want to stay a bit longer, as well as those who just fancy something different, may like to add a few things to their itinerary. For people who don’t have the money for safaris and kitesurfing equipment, who can’t afford to hire a driver for a week, enrol in a scuba course or to stay in plush resorts, what remains? What should be known? What are your responsibilities as a tourist in Sri Lanka?

Values: Essentials

Resorts and upscale hotels are typically western-owned. European, American and Australian banknotes buy more than Sri Lankan rupees, so locals often cannot compete with a foreigner with a few years’ savings under their belt. For this reason, staying in such places can further concentrate the wealth in the hands of the comparatively rich.

Homestays and even entire houses can be rented monthly at remarkably low cost, and feed money into the local community.

Due to large differences in cultural habits and behaviours, many western hotel owners find themselves increasingly frustrated by the perceived incompetence of their Sri Lankan staff. Rather than take it upon themselves to learn about intercultural communication, train their staff appropriately and appreciate the reasons for such professional differences, western capitalists grow weary, condescending and even abusive towards their staff. As members of a ruling class, granted privilege by a history of barbaric colonialism and exploitation, it is the responsibility of foreign property owners to act with cultural sensitivity and respect—and our responsibility as consumers to hold them to it.

If you witness an exchange which makes you feel uncomfortable, between a western tourist or business owner and a Sri Lankan employee, call it out.

The Police: Know Your Rights

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy a liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism. Do not drop your guard.

Sri Lanka is tightening its policing laws by the year. Do not be caught out as, in most situations, the police hold all the cards. There are many misconceptions regarding their powers, so be aware that a police officer is permitted, by law, to: enter your home without a warrant; use firearms if deemed appropriate; and seize your driving license without stating what crime you have supposedly committed.

However, it is also important to know that police officers frequently stop, question and demand arbitrary fines of tourists and expats alike. If one claim is refuted (“No officer, I did not overtake on a double line”), another will appear. For example, that you did not stop quickly enough when they flagged you down, or you must pay a penalty for not carrying the correct documentation.

To avoid trouble, you should:

  1. Carry our license with you, and your IDP (which, if you are from the UK, you can apply for online), and your insurance card, and your tax documents. The police can catch you out on any of these.
  2. Understand your rights, and theirs – penalties for road traffic offences were increased in July 2018, and are set to increase again. Such increases will render offences like driving without valid insurance cover and driving through railway crossings ‘in a haphazard manner’ punishable with fines of up to Rs. 30,000 (currently £131).
  3. Know when to stand your ground – on-the-spot fines are often dished out clumsily, and find their way into the pockets of the police officer who dealt them. Because we lack a deep understanding of the local language and legal system, it is easy for officers to take advantage of foreign ‘offenders’ who do not want to deal with the hassle of going to court and making a statement. Often, if you demand that a penalty notice be officially written, the value of the fine will be significantly reduced.

You can read about my/our experiences with the police in Sri Lanka here and here.

Where, and how, to eat as a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s national dish, a plate of rice served with a variety of curries, coconut sambol and papadum, can be incredibly tasty. It can also be incredibly cheap. There are myriad roadside eateries serving large portions of rice and curry for as little as Rs. 100 (£0.44 at time of writing). Or, you can go to a restaurant and pay the tourist price, which is typically Rs. 800.

What you might miss in terms of service, you will regain twofold by the look on the cook’s face when you walk into his or her rice and curry shop.

Look after yourself, please

Despite a plethora of online articles lauding the friendliness of Sri Lankans, it is fundamental to your wellbeing to face two harsh truths.

  1. 90 per cent of Sri Lankan women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment on public transport (I have written about this here);
  2. One in three Sri Lankan men admits to having carried out some form of sexual or physical abuse on a woman.

Yes, taking a local bus is an experience worth having. Yes, Sri Lanka is known for its spectacular train journeys. It is also true that the majority of Sri Lankans value your happiness over your body. However, due to a combination of western cultural exports, ignorance and behavioural differences, harassment of western tourists is frequent and often severe. I have heard testimonies from other foreign residents of groping in plain sight, incidents within hotels and massage parlours ranging from creepy propositions to unambiguous assaults, joggers being pursued and harassed on beaches, hotel owners entering rooms late at night without consent, hostel owners taking advantage of impressionable young women, and the list goes on.

Modest dress does not preclude harassment.

So, while taking in the sights and sounds of the ‘Wonder of Asia’, be sure to keep your wits about you. While to some you are a welcome guest, to others you are a promiscuous piggybank. As a traveller from a relatively affluent and sexually liberal society, you are subjected to various prejudices. Be aware of them.

* Further reading (external links):
Being a Woman and Travelling Solo in Sri Lanka
Find out the truth: Sri Lanka Police
Groundviews: Sri Lanka’s Pandemic of Sexual Violence


You can also find this article on Medium, along with several others. Read about issues faced by tourists in Sri Lanka, namely sexism and police corruption, as well as the joys that can be experienced there – for example, the (vegan) food.

Police Harassment in Sri Lanka: fines, bribes and batons

While it is becoming increasingly regulated, policing is still conducted by corrupt individuals who act outside the law. Appeals typically result in chaos, humiliation and dead-ends.

Military patrols operating on Mirissa Beach
Military patrols operating on Mirissa Beach

Many foreigners experience police harassment in sri lanka while driving. It is your responsibility to know when you are within your rights, and when not. many have multiple stories of unwarranted interrogation and arbitrary fining.

There are times when distinguishing between rigorous but routie police checks, and police harassment, in Sri Lanka, is difficult.

Sri Lanka is tightening its traffic laws

In July 2018, Sri Lanka Police bolstered its fines for traffic violations, making misdemeanours like driving without a helmet and driving without a license punishable with on-the-spot fines of up to Rs. 1, 2 or 3,000 (about £4/9/13).

It was proposed in January 2019 to revise penalties for ‘major motor traffic offences’—i.e., driving under the influence of alcohol, driving without a valid driving license, entering a vehicle into a railway crossing irresponsibly, driving under-age and driving without valid insurance—to Rs. 25,000. Such offences are the leading causes of road traffic accidents.

The tightening of traffic laws is welcome to those of us who witness the results of unregulated roads every day. Busses, the indefatigable tanks of Sri Lanka’s road network, with crumpled faces; scooters scattered by trucks; bloodied bumpers and men yelling at each other by the side of the road, desperate to keep it from the police. It is par for the course here, to a degree, though that does not make it any less tragic.

Witnessing these roadside set-tos, it is easy to see men squabbling over money as a symptom of petty greed, or callousness. The real issue is that the larger fines and increases in regulation only add a financial burden to those who are accustomed to the old system, without allowing them the benefits. If you are caught out and can’t pay your way, you are penalised. New policies help, but the problem is still endemic.

Why tighter laws don’t necessarily eliminate police harassment

Powers granted to police officers include the ability to enter and inspect homes without a permit, use a firearm if deemed appropriate, and seize a driving license without explanation. In addition, the state of emergency declared by the President after the Easter Sunday attacks handed out liberties police officers had not previously known. The highly criticised Emergency Regulations, which lasted for 30 days, covered censorship, public gatherings, restrictions on publication and the spreading of “rumours” – maintained with any force necessary.

On top of this, extrajudicial acts, like the public humiliation of three suspects in 2013 and assaulting a student protester who had fallen to the ground in 2015, are seemingly swept under the rug. In the former case, the Superintendent of Police allegedly ‘paraded, and […] thereafter cut the hair of three suspects in public’.

While it is becoming increasingly regulated, policing is still conducted by corrupt individuals who act outside the law. Appeals to local police departments against the unjust or inappropriate behaviour of road traffic officers typically end in chaos, humiliation and dead-ends.

Civilians taking the law into their own hands… whose law?

Little reported (though more so in recent weeks) is the way in which Sri Lanka’s Muslim population has borne the brunt of this approach to policing. There are stories rising to the surface of ministers resigning over harassment, and worshippers being harassed, and people being detained for reading the Qu’ran. Following the burqa and niqab ban, Muslim women stayed indoors to avoid abuse. The government recently set up a hotline exclusively for Muslims to report such incidents.

There have been calls to boycott Muslim-owned shops, amid increasing distrust of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. This hostility has been stoked by Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or “Buddhist Power Force”. The group’s chief executive, Dilantha Vithanage, warned that Sri Lankans might be “forced” to deal with what he called “a rise in Islamic extremism” on their own. As quoted in Reuters, he claims “[t]his is a bigger danger than Tamil separatism”.

Buddhist fundamentalism and Islamophobia

Buddhist fundamentalism receives little coverage in the international media – it is drowned out by Islamophobia. Whether an event is politicised or not depends on which narrative it supports, or undermines. The overarching global story regarding Buddhism is that it can do no wrong; Islam, conversely, is frequently scapegoated. One can see how easy it is for civilians to target Muslims with racist abuse and assaults – they are *protecting their country*.

Radicals scare governments either to submission or oppression.

Ever since independence in 1948, Buddhist fundamentalism has been the driving force behind Sinhala intransigence on the ‘Tamil question’. A Buddhist monk assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the country’s fourth Prime Minister, in 1959. His crime? Making too many (in fact they were too few) concessions to the country’s large Tamil minority had cost him his life and spawned a dynasty. But the deterrent effect worked. Sinhala politicians of all stripes began to pander to the monks. Anti-Tamil discrimination was institutionalised. It was a tragedy for the island. The notion that these warped methods could produce long-term stability is risible.

–Tariq Ali – Colombo Telegraph

Militarised Islamic fundamentalism has led to increased security throughout the entire country. Military patrols are ubiquitous, spot-checks frequent, places of worship guarded, transport hubs surveilled, and so on. On the other hand, Buddhist fundamentalism – or, for that matter, attacks by white supremacists (Christians) in New Zealand, the US and Norway – rarely prompts such sweeping policy changes.

Where do foreigners fit in? Context

Understanding the way in which the foreign presence fits in requires a little context.

The 2004 tsunami killed 30,000 Sri Lankans and cost the country’s tourism sector Rs. 26 billion ($250 million). In its wake, Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities sought to spin a torn country into an island of upscale resorts. Bounce Back Sri Lanka, set up in close consultation with the private sector, was an international marketing campaign aimed at restoring tourist traffic. Hotels were rebuilt and beaches cleaned. While funds were funnelled into this, little was done to assist genuine recovery.

A year after the disaster, thousands of coastal Sri Lankans were still living hand-to-mouth in camps, uncertain of their future. Seemingly ignorant of this, the Sri Lankan Tourist Board was optimistic:

‘In a cruel twist of fate, nature has presented Sri Lanka with a unique opportunity, and out of this great tragedy will come a world class tourism destination.’

The deflation of prices following a disaster leaves locals hard-up. At the same time, it makes foreign money all the more powerful.

Where do foreigners fit in? Perception

In a country marred by inequality directly connected to race, forced to cow to a burgeoning tourism industry, it is understandable that foreigners receive mixed reviews.

While many locals are very friendly, it is hard to ignore the obvious divide in wealth, opportunity and privilege. The real cost of things is unknown to much of the foreign community, and it is well known among expatriates that, for this reason, many tuk tuk drivers overcharge. There are fights between the local drivers and those who use PickMe (a Sri Lankan equivalent to Uber), because it undercuts those who overprice.

When news breaks of attacks on religious sites or conflicts between religious groups, foreigners get together and discuss. When word gets round of a series of houses being broken into, we keep our doors locked and lights on at night.

Foreigners are assumed rich and often are, assumed to be naïve and promiscuous and to be wearing rose-tinted glasses. Indeed, they/we often are.

We do not speak Sinhalese and we do not understand the nuances of the Sri Lankan legal system. We are vulnerable and moneyed and do not wish to be detained in police custody. Indeed, the extent to which we do not wish to be detained is such that we are willing to play the game and accept the fine, well aware that the money will be immediately pocketed. It is a convenient way to avoid the frightening unknown.

Where do foreigners fit in? Policing

On the 10th of May, 2019, I was pulled over, with my partner, by two police officers. We were on our way home from an open mic night. It was about 11pm and the road was almost empty.

One of the policemen talks and the other is silent. Despite a congenial introduction, the charges immediately jump from overtaking on a double line, to driving without a license, to driving while under the influence of alcohol. I must pay fines ranging from Rs. 7,500 to Rs. 25,000. I am told to drive to Weligama Police Station, to be breathalysed and arrested, despite being told I am too drunk to drive. My license is at home but I cannot drive there to show them. Returning to the spot where we overtook them, to check the validity of the first claim, is impossible. I am not too drunk to drive.

The silent officer lunges at the motorbike and seizes the keys. Then, as we are manoeuvring the bike off the road, he lunges again to lock the handlebars. He raises a hand at my partner and threatens to hit her.

When I take out my phone and begin to record the incident, the other officer lurches at me and snatches it from my hands. He raises his baton at me and tells me I cannot have it back.

They get back on their motorbike and tell us to follow them to the police station. They leave. We remain, confused, not knowing what exactly we should do, and wondering which of our Sri Lankan friends might be able to help us. Are we hopeless?

Two minutes later we see them driving back. After a brief exchange, we are told to give them all the money we have, in exchange for my phone.

As we are driving away, defeated, I wonder if anyone has won.

When we get home, we learn that two of our friends were mistreated on the same road within an hour of us—separate incidents.

How to respond

In situations like these it is easy to feel numbed and immobilised. Consulting foreign friends of ours, who have had comparable experiences, we are told repeatedly that there is nothing we can do, that reporting it useless and no action will be taken unless it goes right to the top. Sri Lankan friends advise us that an appeal would lead to us being criminalised by any means.    At this time of year, tourism moves its way east to follow the surf. As a result, those who make their money off tourists – tuk-tuk drivers, restaurateurs and, yes, the police – want to make a last buck. Besides the police part, this is unsurprising.

However, the shift is supposed to be gradual. Coming back a few days after the Easter Sunday bombings was like entering a ghost town. Since the attacks, tourist numbers have plummeted. Within a week, net bookings were down 186% compared to figures from 2018—more cancellations than bookings. Combine this with the seasonal decline and what is left is a recipe for hawkish behaviour.

The atmosphere of unease created by the attacks and ensuing raids is compounded by ubiquitous military deployment. Assault rifles guard bus and gas stations, and patrol the beaches.

But the reasons for the increased vigilance are to keep people safe by locating threats, and reassure people by having a uniformed presence. It is a crying shame that figures of authority are abusing the powers granted them in the wake of a national disaster. On that very same night, one of our friends, whom we had been with in the evening, returned home to find that her scooter had been impounded. She had left it on the side of the road for a few hours. Another woman who we met that night was harassed by police on her way home.

What felt like an arbitrary siege on a group of foreigners may have been a coincidence. However, it raises the question of why police feel entitled to abuse their powers at a time when the government needs people to have faith in its policies, and those who enact them. More than ever, Sri Lanka is in the international spotlight. Law enforcers must act with consistency towards residents. On the same note, Muslims have called this country home since the 7th century AD. They, too, deserve to be treated with respect.

Further reading:
Endemic Judicial & Police Corruption In  Sri LankaColombo Telegraph
Sri Lanka Corruption ReportGan Business Corruption Portal

If you have anything you would like to share with the author, please get in touch.


This article also appears on Medium, along with several others.
Read more stories from the ground about sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast(originally published on Travelista)

You can also read the following articles on this site:
Sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is ubiquitous. Are women safe?
Where To Eat Vegan Food in Sri Lanka, and Chinese
How to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka
Police Harassment in Sri Lanka: An Anecdote