21 July, 2019

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On The Dimensions Of Colombo-Phobia

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

A friend of mine, who suggested on Facebook that democracy touting Colombo 7 liberals have been calling Maithripala Sirisena a gamarala and a gramasevaka, got the following reply from an irate Colombo citizen: “Those insults came from the SLFP when he contested.” This same friend, when he suggested that “Colombo 7 wants democracy but not elections”, got an even pithier response: “Aren’t they Sri Lankan citizens too?” To which the friend retorted: “Supposedly.”

Both sides have a point. Colombo, specifically Colombo 7, hasn’t exactly been quiet about its preferred political outcomes when it comes to its rhetoric about democracy and good governance. On the other hand, Pamankada is as much a part of this country as Alimankada and for this reason, dishing the blame for the country’s problems to a specific suburb is as self-defeating as claiming that what this country needs is a leader from Cinnamon Gardens and Colpetty.

When Malinda Seneviratne once suggested that residents of these places would be perfectly happy to secede from the rest of the country and install the Queen as their head of state, he was indulging in caricature. Many of those who bash Colombo today, however, are not indulging in that sort of caricature. They are indulging in invective. The anger of these bashers, in that sense, is more complicated.

At one level it’s a reaction against the simplifications many of those from Colombo tout. It is true that Sirisena was branded as a gamarala and godaya and gramasevaka negatively by the SLFP (before he won the 2015 election), but as commentators like Seneviratne have observed, long before Sirisena thought of defecting, those same Colombo democracy-loving good governance-fetishising citizens minced no words in their insults against Mahinda Rajapaksa over the latter’s rural roots.

Sure, it’s hard to say whether those insults were motivated by a sustained antipathy from their end towards the non English speaking majority, but it’s not hard to say that they were provoked in part at least by anger at seeing an “outsider” calling the shots in their part of the world. That the UNP, the preferred party, scrounged up the highest number of votes (101,920) and seats (24) FROM THE WHOLE COUNTRY at the 2011 Local Government election in Colombo, DESPITE the Urban Development Authority’s unparalleled beautification drive (spearheaded by Gotabaya Rajapaksa), confirmed just where this milieu’s loyalties were. They also confirmed what Rosy Senanayake once crassly remarked during her campaign as the UNP’s candidate for Mayor of the city: that Colombo was the heart of the Party. “Is Buttala its buttocks then?” Malinda asked. Tongue-in-cheek, of course.

Given these facts, equating Colombo with everything anti-Rajapaksa and anti-Sirisena and equating everything anti-Rajapaksa and anti-Sirisena with everything anti-rural and anti-outstation is not the sign of political reductionism some cut it out to be. On the other hand, that this means a vast majority of Colombo residents are opposed to those outstation areas is a hasty conclusion to jump to. If at all, it betrays the critics’ inability to see beyond simplistic binaries, since in their discourse, Colombo is “bad” and outside-Colombo is “good.” (If there’s a single statistic proving this dichotomy beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am yet to come across it.)

Let’s get some perspective here. What is Colombo? It is a city spanning an area of 37 square kilometres extending from the four storey households of Cinnamon Gardens to the two roomed apartments of Pamankada. It begins just after Kohuwela, Nugegoda, and Dehiwela in the south and ends in Mattakkuliya up north. It houses those who attend Colombo International and reside in Ward Place as well as those who attend Royal College and reside in the shanties of Thimbirigasyaya.

The national majority (Sinhalese and Buddhist) make up less than 50 percent of the population, while the figures for Tamils, Muslims, and other minorities exceed their corresponding national percentages. Like most capital cities, it drains people from the rest of the country, provoking a massive rural-urban exodus. The population density, the highest in Sri Lanka (more than 50,000 per square mile), which this exodus serves to compound, makes strange bedfellows out of racial diversity and social disparity: an engineer can expect an opening monthly salary of Rs. 45,000 living in an annexe with a monthly rent of Rs. 15,000, while the driver of the Uber you just hailed sleeps in his cab parked next to a kiosk every night. It is home to both opulence and poverty, both amity and bigotry. In short, it is a world inhabited, and shared, by two cultures.

Colombo is the biggest city in the country. Can we jump to conclusions about its inhabitants the way we can (and do) regarding the inhabitants of other cities, villages, districts, and provinces? Can we say, for instance, that the people of Colombo lack patriotism and that this shows in their voting preferences? I hardly think so. Yes, it is home to Colombo-is-our-heart-wielding rhetoric politicos like Senanayake, but it also was home to S. L. Gunasekara and Lakshman Kadirgamar. Did they lack nationalist credentials? No. Did their actions validate those credentials? Yes. How can we say, then, that patriotism is the preserve of the outstations?

The brutal truth is that it is easy to spit invective at privilege. Easy to confuse privilege for contempt. Easy to howl against it while writing about it within the confines of a leisured existence. That is not, however, how radicalism is bred. That is how armchair radicalism is bred: you rant against institutions of privilege while being perched atop those very same institutions. I should know the hypocrisy behind this. I dabbled in it once myself.

When Gustavo Arellano argued, in an article written to the L. A. Times days after the Woolsey fire began devouring parts of Los Angeles this month, that it was “futile to spend millions saving homes” in Malibu (one of the richest suburbs in the area) since it was created “not for love of the great outdoors or frontier rusticity, but rather as thickets of privacy against L.A.’s working classes”, he enraged a great many readers, one of whom, in a reply, indicted the article as “horribly insensitive.”

Driven by anger, this reader added, “When a tragedy strikes, can’t he just see the grief and the humanity?” For him, what made matters worse was Arellano referring to a seminal critique of suburban privilege by Mike Davis (City of Quartz) titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”, in which he describes Malibu and other wealthy cities as “white flight havens” that have barricaded the bourgeoisie against social minorities. Davis’s argument, deeply compelling to me, incorporates Marxist analysis and social theory. It is a sound thesis, in other words, not a series of hysterical outbursts against the “elitism” of the city dweller.

What makes it reductionist to apply such an argument to Colombo is that in Sri Lanka, for the most, the urban-rural “white flight” exodus was never as rampant as it was and is in other parts of the world, the DEVELOPING world included. Colombo, then, is not the barricade against social minorities these armchair bashers paint it out to be, nor is it the exclusive or near-exclusive preserve of those who wish to create, and sustain, a rift between themselves and the outstations.

Yes, there are those who look down on the social Other. Yes, there are those who have profited from the “kolambata kiri gamata kekiri” dichotomy that years of privatisation, deregulation, and mass public sector pilferage have facilitated. But then there must be a sense of proportion. Colombo is not Malibu. Nor is it Los Angeles. Nor will it ever be a Malibu or a Los Angeles, even with a dictatorial rule under the UNP. And why? Because for every insular “Kolombian”, there will be a great many active citizens who care for, and love, this country, regardless of petty political preferences.

Colombo bashers are fond of claiming that Western models do not work out in non settler colonial countries like Sri Lanka. They are fond of criticising the IMF and the World Bank for bullying us into accepting Western metrics. At the same time, they don’t see any problem in resorting to Western scholars, Marxist or otherwise, in their critiques of urbanisation and urban privilege. They are anti-Western when it comes to capitalism and pro-Western when it comes to diatribes against capitalism. Depending on how you see it, this is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy or hypocrisy. The end result is the same: we have not produced an original thinker, an original radical, who is on par with, but is also not an imitation of, a Mike Davis.

That friend I mentioned at the beginning, by the way, posted a comment on Arellano’s article: “… if Colombo had been wiped out by the tsunami, the entire country would have developed overnight.” Mike Davis wanted a fire. Our radicals want a tsunami. Between the one and the other, I can’t spot out much of a difference. Can you?

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Latest comments

  • 4
    10

    There is Colombo and then there is Colombo. I happened to grow up within one of the nicest wards of Colombo, but also happened to have real rural routes, and through my parents activism made deep connections with the urban poor. Most are not fortunate have had such diverse exposure, and therefore unable to see from other’s perspective. The Colombo 7 viewpoint is real and still very much alive, and there is a sizable population 99% of whom are not from Colombo 7 who subscribes to that viewpoint. Then one wonders why a person who grew up in Palawattha or Kalaldoda have this viewpoint and you realize they’ve been schooled in the so called International Schools. The lack of empathy in this group towards the wants and fears of rural, or poor is astounding. They shout slogans from a playbook carefully constructed by the western imperialists, and they are manipulated like puppets by the few who are still residing in that once glorious now commercial ward of Colo 7. How so few hold so much power so many years after getting rid of the British I do not know.

    • 20
      2

      ” The Colombo 7 viewpoint”

      What an unadulterated load of codswallop ……… this is a classic example of a Lankan with a hint of a “western education” because of passable command of English language trying to pass on moronic claptrap as truth.

      Every rural poor sod who have arrived in Colombo via politics end up in Colombo 7 while the traditional residents of Colombo 7 have left the country.

      Before you write this claptrap first check where people like SB, Namal, ……. and a whole lot of other supposedly “left-leaning” Gamayas reside ……… or would kill to reside.

      Prior to taking up politics, most of these jokers didn’t even have a house anywhere in SL let alone in Colombo 7.

      Current “Colombo 7 viewpoint” is set by these numbskulls! ……… a good example is Sirisena ….. a “by hook or crook” arrival in Colombo 7 from some godforsaken rural shithole.

      Who are you trying to fool? Yourself?

      The truth is a hard thang to face …….. so the feeble of mind waste all their waking hours manufacturing their own truth …….. and look for safety in numbers by trying to get others to accept their cockamamie hallucinations.

      • 1
        5

        Agree. People even did not have a humpy to live in, and were hanging around in ports in Lisbon, Amsterdam and London came to our country and grabbed our land, still squatting in hundreds of acres along Kandy-Kurunegala road alone.

        Like to add to Vedda’s comment by proposing recapture of these lands pronto.

        • 5
          0

          Yappy,
          So the asylum let you change from Kalinga to Minority report and now Yappy. Make up your mind, will you? If you have one, that is. And no, I am NOT Emil.

        • 1
          4

          Yapa you mean Emil broer, you mean there are more like him? Wat de hel?

      • 0
        4

        Nimal, mate I believe you have an anger management issue, if your name is real you have to be pushing seventy, not a good age to get your knickers in a twist, you may blow an artery, I suggest you take a break, meditate, and not eat my bait and flatulate.

        • 0
          0

          “pushing seventy”

          Geeze man ………..how accurate/spot-on am I? …… See, as I said a minute ago you guys manufacture your own truth/reality/delusions for your own happiness! :))

          Anyway I’ll desist ……… lest I deny the little happiness you might feel in your dreary humdrum lives! :))

          See, I’m a nice guy even if I have to say so myself! :)))

        • 3
          0

          wannihami

          “Nimal, mate I believe you have an anger management issue,”

          Well what do you have, selective amnesia, selectively colour-blind, ……………..
          You need only to look at the Parliament, which is being held for ransom by crooks, war criminals, thugs, …………… you don’t mind watching the Sinhala/Buddhist Guy Fawkes Wimal Windbag Weerawansa who wanted to bomb the building from air, walking, talking, ……… mostly bullshitting with his racist rhetoric …………. inside parliament threatening fellow …………….
          You have nothing to say about them and their undemocratic and uncivilised behaviour just because they seem to be your bastards, must be out of your mind, out there living a parallel universe, ……………….

          Aren’t you ashamed of yourself and those crooks and thugs you support …………..

  • 6
    1

    Uditha, people dislike/love Mahinda because he is an out and out racist and a plundeder of public money and a clever rogue. Sirisena has no credentials of statesmanship and is manipulating the constitutional power just to aid Mahinda and get another term in 2020. Ranil failed to deliver what he promised. Quoting Milinda, Colombo7 , Buththala etc all are not relevant. Another pathetic piece! Jay

  • 3
    1

    Grow up Uditha without dishing out garbage! You are light years away from the social and political reality! This is kindergarten stuff- Bored reader

  • 6
    1

    I don’t know about Colombo but the rot set in when SWRD brought his “Sinhala Only” doctrine. He knew without an iota of doubt in his mind that what he was proposing would keep the Sinhalese rural folk out of contention when it came to the plush jobs in the country. He envisaged that the elite would continue to rule the country with most citizens shut out of contention because of their lack of knowledge in the English language.
    What SWRD did was not to uplift the downtrodden masses who at that time were the non-English speaking Sinhalese majority but to ensure they remained in the shithole forever. They are still without their English and remain in that same shithole.
    Just imagine if SWRD had done otherwise. Being an Oxford scholar of no mean repute, he was the Secretary of the Oxford Union a prestigious post for an Asian to hold at that era of the world. If he had taken English to every school in every village and inculcated the importance of the language and what role it would play in the future, Sri Lanka would definitely be the ”Wonder of Asia” instead of the Pariah it is turning out to be.
    We would not have the likes of, Wimal, SB, Johnston, Prasanna, Mutte, or may others who could fill this page robbing from us and living the high life, oblivious to the suffering of the people.
    On face value whatever anyone may say, the UNP lot has some class in them which is completely lost on the others from the Blue, and now the satakaya camp. This exactly what SWRD wanted to achieve to ensure the Blue camp remained his family’s heirloom but unfortunately his grandson Vimukthi is languishing in the UK because he is unable to speak Sinhalese fluently for no fault of his.

  • 0
    1

    No, no Udith. For the very few that SEEM to be perched atop institutions of privilege, they in fact got there against their more innate wishes, and through no fault of their own.

    For going against the flow of the economic push would have driven them into dire hardship, and even torture and imprisonment. They are in completely helpless straits and know that by themselves, there is little they can do.

    But they see the misery of the Masses from which they emerged- especially the menial worker that goes to the Middle East.

    Because of the few who do speak up, the money of the Middle East menial workers at least goes back to the working class and into their so called “socialized” institutions like “free” education and healthcare.

    And Kolombites actually howl about that one too, feeling that the country money they think emerged out of thin air, is theirs to invest to make the place more Western for themselves.

    Thank god for those who do speak up, for that is the only reason there isn’t quite a mass exodus from country to city in Sri Lanka- Buddhist virtues still prevail.

    The greater numbers perched atop institutions of privilege continue to insist in feeding the rotten system.

  • 8
    2

    Colombo 7 is where Mahinda and Maithripala together with their brood lodge at State expense. Democracy is not a liberal preference. It is a human entitlement. Our common humanity is a fact. Our opinionated prejudices are artifacts. .

    • 0
      0

      Mr Sarath Alwis
      “It is a human entitlement”
      Two dollars a day for 40%?
      In regard to ‘artifacts’ you are one of the most creative. Yet they are very ineffective – local elections proved that.

      Soma

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