Sam Bresnick

December 22, 2016

Where are you – and what are you doing – on your PiA fellowship?

I am in humid Colombo, Sri Lanka, and I am working as a journalist at Lake House, a media institution that’s been around for some 90 years. I must point out that the government owns a controlling stake in the company, and, up until about a year and a half ago, it was the primary source of pro-government propaganda in the country. The new regime, which assumed power in January of 2015 has relaxed controls on the press, so the quality of the paper is undoubtedly improving. The building itself is incredible. One can spend hours wandering the corridors and stumbling into rooms that appear to have not been entered for decades. Just last week, I staggered into a room that housed what had to have been over 60 trophies. A portrait of “Mr. Lake House 1968” clung to the wall, assuming its position among pictures of winning intramural sports teams. Just next door was a cobweb-draped gym with ancient equipment. In the basement are the printing presses, aging machines that generate massive amounts of heat that augment the city’s outrageous mugginess. The building houses two English-language newspapers, two Sinhala newspapers, two Tamil newspapers, and over 20 weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly publications. At one point, the company employed around 3000 people. Now, the number is down to between 1700-1800.

Oh, and let's not forget-- you're one of our fabulous second-year fellows! What inspired you to stay for round two with PiA and move to Sri Lanka to take on this new position?  

Though I really enjoyed teaching in Thailand, I never felt like I really understood the politics or the culture. I loved the food, the friendliness, and the natural beauty, but I found myself longing for a position that would allow me to (hopefully) understand the sociopolitical happenings of another Asian country. When I learned about the possibility of being the guinea pig for a brand new PiA post in Sri Lanka, a country I knew almost nothing about, I jumped at the opportunity. 

Can you describe your experience in Asia thus far in three concise and varied words?

  1. Pungent
  2. Moist
  3. Sticky

What is the most significant thing you’ve learned during your time on PiA?

The importance of responsible adventuring. My friend Alex lived with me for the first half of my time in Thailand, and we figured out that it was almost always worth it to say “yes” to plans or opportunities that presented themselves. Go 5 hours round trip on scooters in the blazing heat to hike a mountain that might be closed for the season? Okay. Accompany a friendly Burmese student to dinner at his family’s home? Sure. 26 of the next 29 hours on back-to-back buses? Fine. I’m not advocating irresponsible risk taking (we did say “no” to rock climbing without proper harnesses), but the momentary discomfort and awkwardness fade while the amazing memories stick around.

Tell us about two or three of your most interesting stories that you've worked on for the newspaper.

I have had the opportunity to work on some truly fascinating stories thus far. Probably the most interesting article I’ve done was on the continued prevalence of police torturing suspects while in custody. This was a common practice during the almost 30-year civil war, and, though it has become slightly more rare, police do indeed still torture people instead of conducting thorough investigations. I spoke with victims of torture, lawyers representing them, officials from the Human Rights Commission, and the police themselves in order to try to understand the issue. Despite all of my investigative efforts, the story went unpublished due to its controversial subject matter.

Another cool piece I wrote (that got published) was on the continued growth of small dams, called mini hydros, in Sri Lanka. With vast hydropower potential, the country is now oversaturated with mini hydros that are adversely affecting its forests, changing the flows of its rivers and streams, and contributing to land slides. I wrote about the environmental issues these structures cause, but I also covered the administrative procedures used to approve these projects.

I recently traveled to the Eastern Province to cover the plight of a group of villagers who were kicked off their land by government forces six years ago. These people live in Panama, a town just south of Arugam Bay, a major surfing and tourist hotspot. The government clearly wants the land to build hotels and other tourist infrastructure, and they kicked the people off of some prime beachfront real estate. Despite this, the villagers have organized and are fighting to get their land back.

If you could invite three people, dead or alive, to come to a dinner party in your host city, who would you invite and why? 

1. Ajaan Lah, my Thai language teacher from Chiang Mai. She is a practicing Buddhist and guaranteed that she would visit me this year. She would get a kick out of the scene here.

2. J.R. Smith, professional basketball player for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The man is highly unpredictable and erratic, and I think it would be hilarious to hang out with him in Colombo.

3. Ptolemy, Greco-Egyptian writer, mathematician, geographer, etc. He apparently drew a map of Sri Lanka back in the day. It would be fun to compare the island then and now.

What is one goal you have for the coming year with PiA?

I’m very excited to have an opportunity to work on my writing every day. I wrote a lot in college, and I didn’t write very much last year. This year would be a great success if I improved as a journalist and writer.

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