By Emil van der Poorten –
As someone once said “It’s hard not to be paranoid when the b….s keep harassing you!”
Messages to “cease and desist” from criticizing our non pareil government which epitomizes peace and goodwill to all mankind (and some on the distaff side, too) have come and continue to do so from every direction, most, but not all , relatively innocuous, well-meaning and non –threatening.
However, recently, on the night before I was due to make a pilgrimage to the Sri Lanka Press Institute/The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka “Do” on the last night of July to accept an “also-ran” award, I was subject to yet another “coincidental” event.
We have, at the top of the hill on which my family has lived for a three generations, installed a gate to prevent unnecessarily easy entry into our premises. This is something of very recent origin and owes its existence to the increasing incidents of what can only be described as banditry in the area, much of it driven by economic necessity rather than simple opportunity.
Since the “locals” are well aware of the fact that we do not have hoarded foreign currency, four million rupee watches and similar baubles on our premises, the installation of something as sophisticated as a burglar alarm could be considered gross overkill. That said, when one is aware that there are, in the vicinity, those who were, for reasons best known to the “authorities,” welcomed into the army, and given weapons training despite their criminal records, one would be verging on the ultra-stupid not to take minimal precautions at least, particularly when, thanks entirely, I am informed, to a Defence Secretary-order, no one over retirement age is permitted to own so much as a single-barreled shotgun for personal security! Of course some of our local deserter “war veterans” with criminal records are suspected to have decamped with such as Uzis, T56s etc.
Anyway, when we were in the process of leaving our premises for Colombo before daybreak on July 31st, we were greeted by the sight, just outside our gate, of a completely vandalized direction sign and most of the flowering shrubs surrounding it uprooted and scattered around. Since we did not have the luxury of the half day that it would take to register a complaint at the local “cop shop,” we requested one of our employees to make the required “entry” and proceeded to the capital city. When I called the Officer-in-Charge of the police station later that morning, he told me that he and pretty well all his officers were in Kandy on Perahera duty. So that took care of any prospect of an inquiry into the matter before the trail ran cold. However, our employee not only lodged an “entry” at the police station but also did some investigating of his own and uncovered the identity of the culprits, passing the information on to the police.
The scenario appears to have been as follows.
There was, in a nearby informal “colony,” a conflict typical of these unplanned and socially-chaotic entities. All the protagonists were Tamils. An individual from one group, not usually resident there, a three-wheeler driver, had recruited several friends from the town in which he operates, some miles away, and decided to deal with his family’s enemies. They walk up the road late at night, having brought along an appropriate quantity of spirituous liquids and some “bath packets.” Having consumed the dry and wet refreshment, they decide that they should leave evidence of their being there by smashing the bottles and leaving shards of glass for the feet of any unwary pedestrian traversing a right-of-way that is now little better than a glorified game path. Up they come and on they go to the “colony” where, for whatever miraculous reason, a violent brawl is averted despite loud abuse which we hear from our home.
However, the damage to our signage and the destruction of the flower plants around it that we see the next morning is not the usual kind of vandalism. It had to be done deliberately and took some effort to uproot a sign, the post holding which was secured in concrete. It took additional effort to uproot a bunch of flower plants and shrubs and strew them all around. All, in the dead of night.
Also, apart from one individual who was familiar with this part of the world, all the others were from the town several miles away. What had added significance was the fact that they, unlike suspect No. I, were not Tamils. They were Muslims and, perhaps even more significant, were reputed to be part of the “strong-men brigade” of a Muslim member of the local Pradeshiya Sabhawa who, in turn, was reputed to be the protégé of a senior Muslim politician with reputed to be connected to the upper levels of the national drug trade!
Most significantly, not one of the miscreants had anything resembling a grudge against or conflict with us.
If Alice was not in Wonderland but here in Galagedera, she’d be exclaiming that the narrative was getting “curiouser and curiouser!”
The mess around the scene of vandalism was tidied up, leaving the primary damage “as was” for the police investigation which occurred four days after the incident. I was subsequently told that the miscreants were summoned to the police station and warned not to repeat their behavior. The cost of repairs to sign board etc. becomes my responsibility as a result of this resolution of the problem. I must say, though, that, given the circumstances, the local constabulary has done as well as can be expected. This is because we have been fortunate in having an O.I.C. who has consistently displayed a grasp of community policing concepts which I have some familiarity with by virtue of working, not so long ago, with a police service that had an excellent international reputation for that particular mode of policing.
Another matter relevant to this incident appears to be the fact that some local politicians have made it their business to prevent repairs to a road serving yours truly (among a host of other residents), ensuring that it will soon become impassable to vehicular traffic, something of major economic significant to our “paying guest” operation. The politician whose goons were 4/5 of the brigade of vandals “happens” to be one of the bunch with control over this state of affairs. His connection to the afore-mentioned “senior politician” with a less-than-orthodox source of income is also fascinating in the circumstances!
When one is trying to run a very small-scale paying-guest operation catering primarily to foreigners, access and signage (not to mention, personal security of one’s guests) is of critical importance. Exercising the minimum in the matter of freedom of expression at the same time seems to bring with it the obvious challenge of staying solvent and, more important, staying out of a premature grave!