By Dharisha Bastians –
Do better roads and a spruced up capital city compensate for lousy prioritisation, corruption and repression in post-war Sri Lanka?
Under the glass deck at the entrance to Independence Arcade on Bauddhaloka Mawatha, hundreds of ornamental fish swim hypnotically to and fro, delighting children and visitors to the latest entertainment spot in the capital. The glass is tough enough to walk on and the pond is lit up beautifully at night, making the massive underground tank a major attraction at the 85,000 square ft. recreational facility. Every other afternoon, the fish confine themselves to the farthest corners of the tank, and visitors can view a different species half-submerged in the green waters. Window pane viper and brush in hand, a Sri Lanka Navy sailor floats along the surface, diligently wiping slime and water vapour off each glass pane to prevent the view frm above being obscured. Senior officers stand upon the glass, issuing occasional instructions. Each pane on the deck that covers the fish tank is estimated to have cost well over a million rupees. Touted by its publicists as an ‘Expression of Freedom’ in post-war Sri Lanka, the actual cost incurred by the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development to restore the dilapidated Auditor General’s offices have never been made public. The restored colonial facade, tasteful interiors and illuminated water features make Arcade Independence Square a stunning icon in the heart of the city, brimming with promise about Colombo’s future. ‘Beautiful City; Beautiful Life’ reads the Arcade tagline, a reflection of the vision for the capital city created by the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.
There is a transformation occurring in Colombo that delights residents with the means to partake of it. The ‘new’ Colombo with its walking paths and green buildings instills a justifiable sense of pride in any loyal city dweller who has endured life in the garrisoned capital of the war years. Blinded by the glittering lights of the Arcade and the Race Course, distracted by its plush cinemas and celebrity restaurants, it is not difficult to ignore the mild disquiet residents must also feel about the way the city is being administered, how post-war Sri Lanka is being governed. It is easy to forget the ‘other’ Colombo.
The ‘other’ capital
The ‘other’ Colombo is an uncomfortable place. It is a city where student and opposition demonstrations are cracked down upon with brutal force. Where saffron mobs are rampaging through the streets, disrupting lawful gatherings in private premises or striking fear into the hearts of entire communities of people. Where thousands of Colombo residents, who have lived and worked in the bustling capital for decades are rendered homeless, their livelihoods destroyed in the blink of an eye.
A vast majority of Colombo’s old faithful live in this other city. Last week, as the Government set to work making provision for leisure boating and sailboats on the Diyawanna Oya – the high security zone of the war years, tens of thousands of people living in the suburbs of the city suffered nearly four days without running water. It was UNP Parliamentarian Dr. Harsha De Silva that first alerted the public about the reasons for the disruption, when his Kotte electorate was badly affected. De Silva said that when the Polduwa bridge en route to Parliament was raised in order to allow the high masts of yachts and sailboats to cross the river, the main waterline that rain through the bridge, servicing Battaramulla, Kotte, Nugegoda, Udahamulla and Kirulapone also had to be raised to the same level.
It was a small, yet painful dose of what much less fortunate Colombo residents have had to endure during the city upgrade. For purposes of ‘beautification’ scores of hawkers have watched backhoes demolish their tiny pavement shops, leaving nothing, not even a light bulb to salvage from the rubble. Children returned from school to see their bedding discarded by the roadside, the homes their parents had lived in for 25 years reduced to nothing. The first of these evictions in Slave Island, sparked an outcry, with Government and Opposition Parliamentarians rushing to the site to stop the ‘dozers. The case went before the Supreme Court, that has failed to offer redress for nearly four years. Slowly, evictees from other parts of Colombo simply gave up. Some of them had legal rights to their land. Others had no claim. Nearly all of them got a very raw deal, forced to move into 400 sq.ft apartments the Government was forcing them to pay for, far away from the tiny pavements or railway stations where they once made a living. The city’s iconic dhobi community have met the same fate. The bright white sheets and uniforms no longer dry merrily in the wind beside the Beira Lake after the entire settlement was moved temporarily elsewhere in Colpetty, a place they say is just not the same. But Some might say that is the price of a prettier capital. Some might even say ‘you must break an egg to make an omelette’. But there is something deeply saddening about the fact that entire sections of Old Colombo are disappearing, submerged forever under the mega-beautification and development drive, erasing people and landmarks and lifestories forever. There is something profoundly inhumane about the manner in which land is being reclaimed for development, something distinctly non-participatory about the entire process. Claims about ‘expressions of freedom’ tend to ring hollow in the face of it.
And across the country, the disconnect continues.
Living only a few hundred miles away from the multi-million rupee fish tank that dazzles visitors to the Arcade, over a million Sri Lankans are affected by a debilitating drought. For over six months, the drought has destroyed cultivation and hindered livestock farming. As the rains continue to fail, the districts of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Moneragala, Ampara, Hambantota, Puttalam, Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi are now facing acute drinking water shortages. Divisional Secretariats water by bowser to the affected areas, but officials are struggling to meet the peoples’ needs as rivers and lakes that are the primary sources of water in dry zone areas have literally run dry. Their crops failing, farmers in these primarily agricultural areas are without livelihood or income. In drought struck Trincomalee, impoverished families, including very young children are trying to make do on a single meal a day.
Rebuilding structures not trust
In Aluthgama, nearly two months after vicious religious riots erupted following a Bodu Bala Sena rally in the town the Sri Lanka Army has identified 211 homes in need of repairs. At least 72 of these houses are in need of major repair, a likely figure since many buildings suffered severe structural damage from petrol fires. The military is proud of how fast the restoration work is being completed in the riot-rocked settlements of Dharga Town, Adhikarigoda, Pathirajagoda and Welipenna. The army announcement about the restoration work is a rare public acknowledgement from the State of the extent of the damage caused by violent mobs that romped through the area on 15 June. It is typical of the Rajapaksa regime to ‘send in the army’ to rebuild. And it is not surprising that the ruling Administration believes the reconstruction and infrastructure upgrades in the area will compensate for the psychological scarring and mistrust between communities that are a direct consequence of the riots. It is afterall the same formula the regime has used to ‘deliver’ post-war reconciliation. It deludes itself that new roads and gleaming buildings will compensate for the loss of dignity, for continuing oppression and surveillance. Then it wonders why the war-ravaged people of the North are refusing to be more grateful.
Far from addressing the root causes of the religious violence in Aluthgama two months ago, the Government has continued to vindicate the aggressors and blame the victims for the incident. It has continued to give the Bodu Bala Sena a free rein, left its controversial, hate-mongering monk untouched and vilified and persecuted through its state controlled press, all those who condemned the religious riots in Aluthgama. Last week, Police arrested four Muslim youth on charges of spreading ethnic discord for the crime of forwarding text messages about planned violence against the Muslim community that was being predicted on the censored website Lankaenews. They have been remanded by a magistrate until 18 August. Against everyone except the Bodu Bala Sena and its General Secretary Galagodaththe Gnansara, the charges of sowing ethnic disharmony holds. The charge is used liberally, to arrest human rights activists, Muslim politicians, teenagers and most recently, a Tamil student at the Sabaragamuwa University, who is now facing criminal charges for ‘assaulting himself’ and falsifying a police complaint.
Around the city of Colombo, a war-time police form is being circulated in certain neighbourhoods, escalating fears that residences belonging to the Muslim community are being profiled for targeting at a later date. Only 60 days after religious riots in Aluthgama, Muslims are naturally fearful, recollecting that the violent mobs in 1983 were equipped with Grama Sevaka lists that allowed them to identify Tamil homes that they then looted and burnt. Neither the police nor the Government have done anything to allay those fears.
The Police insist that the forms are an attempt to determine if criminal elements have taken up occupancy in residences in the city. Yet it is unclear how such a thing can be determined through a form that only requires the names and NIC numbers of all those occupying a home. It may be a case of particularly bad timing, with no sinister motives attached. But persistent attack and persecution have a way of paralysing communities with fear.
At the Centre for Society and Religion, which was under siege only last week, activists spoke of this different country. They spoke of the country in which monk led mobs stormed private meetings and disrupted lawful civil society events, and never faced consequences for their actions. They recalled a Mahinda Rajapaksa, who walked the streets with almost every one of them in the 1990s, campaigning on behalf of the disappeared, meeting families and parents of missing people in the very same church hall many years ago. “When he was elected, civil society thought their moment had come. That here was one of us, the champion of the opposition, who had marched with us and fought with us against a tyrannical Jayawardene and Premadasa regimes,” said Brito Fernando, a tireless disappearances campaigner, now fighting for justice for missing peoples’ families from the Northern Province. Instead, activists like Dr. Nimalka Fernando claim President Rajapaksa is now sending in his proxies and bands of monks to obstruct the same causes he once championed. Terrified and weeping, the families from the North who had gathered at the Centre for discussions, returned home on 4 August, following the disruption, which occurred in full view of several members of the Colombo based diplomatic community. The ‘monks’ labelled them ‘Mahaveer families’ and insisted that the police ‘finish off the traitors’ or send them to be hanged. The freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in post-war Sri Lanka, referred to in all Government statements regarding these repeated disruptions and in which the State almost always sides with the marauders, is increasingly reserved only for pro-Government protestors and mobs. The state of affairs has come to such precipice that a band of Government ministers met with the Chief Prelates in Kandy yesterday, to brief them about the conduct and activities of the Bodu Bala Sena and their affiliates. Ministers in President Rajapaksa’s own cabinet can no longer tolerate the impunity these hardline groups enjoy, with Minister Mervyn Silva, bizarrely, issuing scathing statements against Gnanasara Thero, insisting that his conduct and his words were an affront to Buddhism.
As the regime builds this ‘wonder of Asia’, 41 Sri Lankans – most of them Sinhalese – recently boarded a rickety boat, undertaking a perilous journey at sea to seek out greener pastures and work opportunities in New Zealand.
To say things are topsy-turvy would be to understate matters. Something is seriously askew in post-war Sri Lanka, and it has little to do with UN inquiries or international conspiracies. Impunity reigns, from the smallest village to the top most tiers of governance and the regime has mixed up its priorities to a level that is laughable if it weren’t also tragic in every way. Where state run schools and hospitals, public transport and utilities are in deplorable condition, in the capital and outside, this is the regime that spends millions on fish-tanks and sculptures, tens of millions on architects that must travel to heritage cities in Europe to draw inspiration and recreate in Colombo. Corruption and nepotism have reached unprecedented levels; levels that make information about the extent of the problem difficult to contain. And still, the regime builds and it rebuilds, carpeted roads in the Northern Province, burnt out homes in Aluthgama, 100 kmph highways and the world’s most expensive railway tracks, little realising that the post-war society it is constructing is unstable at its core. The disconnect between the Sri Lanka the rulers claim to be forging and the grim reality of the present, is no recipe for equitable development. A people, marginalised and oppressed, fearful for the future and denied their basic needs, belies the beautiful picture the regime is painting, and increasingly, the ugly underbelly will begin to show. Whether the bright lights and glittering fountains will suffice to keep the populace gaping, distracted and forgiving, time will tell.
Courtesy Daily FT