Suicide soars in the midst of 'paradise' isle gets a bad name for suicide stains the image of tops world suicide league

Sri Lanka's tropical beauties mask a population giving way to despair, writes Jan McGirk
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Lurid headlines like these used to be daily newspaper fodder in Sri Lanka, but all reports of suicide have vanished from the country's six government- controlled papers, following a recent directive from President Chandrika Kumaratunge's private office. The two state television channels and government radio were gagged as well.

By suppressing these titillating accounts of how lovesick and despairing Sri Lankans kill themselves, the president hopes, others might be discouraged from copying them. Sri Lanka needs to try something to bring down what may be the highest suicide rate in the world: according to a recent study by Colombo University, 46 of every 100,000 Sri Lankans kill themselves, putting the country significantly ahead of Hungary (38.6 per 100,000) and Finland, which attract international concern due to their abnormally high number of suicides.

Sociologists have often blamed gloomy northern climes for triggering suicidal angst. The rate is significantly lower in most of Latin America and southern Europe, and Caribbean nations such as Barbados and the Bahamas are near the bottom of figures compiled by the World Health Organisation. But Sri Lanka - which is omitted from the WHO statistics because it has not submitted figures for a decade - is a stereotypical tropical isle, with coral reefs, coconut palms and green tea gardens.

Something other than the climate is at work, and the major stress factor is the relentless and brutal civil war which has set the Tamil minority against the ruling Sinhalese for the past 13 years. But that alone would not be enough to account for Sri Lanka's high suicide rate. What pushes it to the top of the table are the myriad of domestic tragedies: the cuckolded husbands who drink insecticide, the abused wives who hang themselves by their saris, the unemployed men who end it all after betting the month's rent on a losing horse. In other wars it has often been noted that the civilian suicide rate declines, but not here.

Researchers at Colombo University, headed by a forensic surgeon, Hemamal Jayawardena, set out to determine why so many Sri Lankans kill themselves. The study revealed that suicides are most common in the northern and eastern portions of the island, where ethnic violence has not let up in more than a decade.

The Tamil Tigers, led by the mysterious Velupillai Prabakharan, are notorious for their fanaticism; the elite Black Tigers carry cyanide pills around their necks in case of capture. Suicide bombings by the Tigers are frequent, and government soldiers who must face the suicide squads have a particularly high rate of self-destruction. Deaths among fighters on both sides can cause a loss of hope among their families, bringing more suicides.

The war has also damaged the economy. High achievers flee to employment elsewhere if they can, and the research shows that the long-term unemployed are at a higher risk of committing suicide. In contrast to neighbouring India, Sri Lanka is a highly literate society - more than 90 per cent can read and write - but that gives the disadvantaged a keener awareness of their plight.

Across the island, the most prevalent method of suicide is swallowing insecticide, which is on sale at even the remotest village shop. Strangulation is also common, particularly among women suicides, who typically are found dangling from the ceiling fans, saris knotted round their necks.

Sri Lanka is the only Buddhist nation in south Asia, and some claim that Buddhism's belief in reincarnation might make suicide appear less final. The faith's proponents deny this, saying that death by one's own hand postpones nirvana, because it interrupts the natural cycle of new lives. In any case, the study showed that suicide in Sri Lanka cuts across barriers of religion, caste and ethnicity.

This has brought the part played by the press under scrutiny. "The role of suggestion in suicide has been well documented abroad," pointed out Niresh Sumadasa, a Colombo sociologist. The press began dwelling on lurid personal stories in the late 1980s, when censorship stopped them reporting any military news. Editors filled the gap with articles on jilted lovers killing themselves, and found that they struck a sinister chord.