Colombo Telegraph

A Climate Of Fear Verging On Hysteria

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

A short while ago, I documented the attack launched by lorry-loads of goons accompanied by two members of the local police, on Vesak Day no less, on residents of my neighbourhood.

The second chapter of that little saga was when six of those Tamils resident on the informal colony adjacent to the land on which I reside were sentenced to pay fines of, I understand, three thousand rupees each for being inebriated (in their own homes on land they have occupied for a significant amount of time).  While there seemed little doubt that these men were inebriated at the time and place concerned there appeared to be some significance to the fact that not one member of the three lorry-loads of marauders, allegedly from the North Western Province bailiwick of a Cabinet Minister with a known propensity for violence, were charged with any offence whatsoever!  I am sure that the fact that the former were Tamils and the latter Sinhalese had nothing to do with this turn of events!

You’d have thought that, unjust and unfair as all this was, that would be that.

However, the fall-out from lunacy that is perpetrated in this manner can go in directions that cannot be anticipated by those generating it.

In my continuing (and unsuccessful!) attempts to regulate an expanding waistline, I embarked on my usual “constitutional” fairly late one recent evening.  A short distance down the rough and lonely track that passes for a “motorable road,” I met a group of about a dozen youth accompanied by an adult, none of whom were familiar to me.   I asked, in the manner that is the practice in these parts, where they were bound and received the response that they were “going for a walk.”   Our access road is not exactly a hiking trail and the imminent stormy weather wasn’t exactly conducive to an evening’s stroll without benefit of raincoat or umbrella.  However, given the fact that none of the group fitted the traditional appearance of village “chandiyas” and appeared completely sober and unarmed I was reassured and continued on my way with my “guard dog,” all 10- kilograms of her, engaged in her usual barking at and chasing after assorted monkeys and giant squirrels.

The next person I encountered was one of our Tamil neighbours, much the worse for wear in the matter of having celebrated well but not too wisely.  However, he was coherent enough to exchange the usual pleasantries and he continued up the hill while I kept going down.

Soon after I’d begun to retrace my steps from the point at which I usually do, I was overtaken by another young man who greeted me (in English which was obviously not the language in which he usually communicated) and who, briskly, proceeded on his way to join his friends.

Thanks to the miracle of the mobile phone,  I phoned home to acquaint my “other half” of the volatility of what might develop given the fact that an inebriated Tamil could well encounter a group of Sinhalese youth after, only a short time before, being subjected to significant violence dished out by people of the same ethnic and age profile.

I suggested that the gate at the entrance to our home be closed and we both kept our fingers crossed, literally and metaphorically!

A couple of hundred metres up the road, I see a young Tamil woman proceeding in the opposite direction.  Again, I know who she is and the fact that she is as “ashen-faced” as her very dark complexion would permit is cause for concern.  I ask her whether she’d met the group of young men and she answers in the affirmative, saying that they were on the side of the road, a few bends farther on.  Reluctant to extend the conversation, she continues on her way in the manner traditionally reserved for the metaphorical “scalded cat!”

I keep walking and meet up with the group again, all stationary, on the verge of our “jeep track.”  I again ask them from where they were and get what seems like a very evasive reply.

I keep going and, with the rain beginning to come down, cover the 150 metres to my home as quickly as I can.

There I discover that my (inebriated) Tamil friend had already phoned my home suggesting that given the presence of a gang of young strangers on our road, I could be at significant risk!  And the employees still on the premises appeared to have been on the verge of launching a “rescue” operation on my behalf, the outcome of which I can’t but shudder to contemplate!

Subsequent investigations, via the usual (local) sources revealed that the group was a completely harmless bunch of young men from a neighbouring heavy-equipment training centre accompanied by their instructor and inquisitive about our sign-posted paying guest operation.  They had, obviously, lost their nerve when asked what brought them to our neighbourhood in rather unusual circumstances.

However, what is most disturbing is the potential volatility of absolutely harmless behavior thanks to the climate of fear and mistrust in what’s left of the Rule of Law in our area.  And mind you, that lack of trust in what exists in the way of law and order is despite an officer-in-charge of the local police that I’ve previously described as trying to practice the closest thing to “community policing” that I’ve seen in this country.  It was only thanks to cooler heads prevailing, that a totally unnecessary and potentially violent confrontation was avoided that evening.  However, in the absence of the rule of law, particularly in rural Sri Lanka, the climate of fear and uncertainty, particularly for “identifiable minorities” will continue with the attendant risk of very serious consequences.

The picture that accompanies this bit of writing depicts one immediate outcome of the state of affairs that prevails in our neighbourhood:  two of my Tamil neighbours parking their little truck and a three-wheeler in my front compound in the belief that they would be safer from attack there.

Welcome to the Debacle of Asia!

Back to Home page