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Sri Lanka's buttock brouhaha

‘It is the intention of Mr Ranil Wickramasinghe to generate a ‘mod’ farmer without hanging cheeks and whose buttocks are not visible as in the traditional clothing.’ So read a pre-election press release this month by one Dr Rajitha Senaratne, Sri Lankan MP and member of the leading opposition United National Party (UNP), whose leader, the aforementioned Mr Wickramasinghe, hopes to become president when the country goes to the polls in three weeks’ time.

There are many important issues being contested: recovery from the tsunami, an uneasy ceasefire in the long-running civil war, arguments over corruption. But unwittingly, it seems, Mr Senaratne has touched on an issue equally close to many of his compatriots’ hearts.

Sri Lanka is a conservative country. Westerners are advised to cover their shoulders and legs to avoid attracting attention, and Sri Lankan women bathing in rivers manage, in contravention of all laws of topology, to thoroughly clean themselves while barely ruffling their sari.

But there are contradictions. Although the ‘wet sari’ scene is about as risque as local films will venture, these garments - even on portly elderly women - often happily expose the midriff. And workers in rice paddies still wear the traditional loincloth. Known as the amude, this clothing (as the MP was keen to point out) exposes the buttocks. Kind of like an agricultural version of the G-string.

Farmers across the world are a notoriously militant bunch. When aggravated, they are prone to release sheep in inconvenient locations or drive tractors three abreast down motorways. So by wading into the great amude debate, Dr Senaratne was perhaps fortunate to get off with a mild roasting in the letters pages.

‘Dr Senaratne is talking nonsense,’ thundered a PB Godigamuwa from Maharagama. ‘In Sri Lanka, farmers work in a pool of muddy water. The loincloth is the most suitable attire. They get the wind blowing to their bare bodies, feet and buttocks to enable them to work hard the whole day.’

Back-pedalling soon followed. Proving that the art of spin has successfully crossed the Indian ocean, Dr Senaratne explained that his remarks were actually praising the farmers for having already modernised: ‘The JVP [the Marxist nationalist opposition party] assume that farmers have to be dressed in the amude. But things have changed and today farmers are working in shorts and socialising in jeans and T-shirts.’

It remains to be seen how this loincloth flip-flopping will ultimately play at the polls.