Anuradhapura, Peace and Conflict

Travels in a Militarised Society — 2

Anudhradapura District, mid October 2007

The huge, busy conurbation of Anudharapura—once a sacred city—has become the major transit centre for military forces en route to and from the current war zones. The ancient archeologically important ruins for which Anudharapura is famous are dwarfed by the sprawling modern developments. An informal economy has grown up in which small traders sell the debris of militarism: single T56 bullets for 15 rupees each. Many young girls have come to the city to sell their favours to the military personnel. Guesthouses built for tourists who rarely come any more are now informal brothels. A trader approaches asking, “What do you want? Bullets? Weapons? Girls?” If you want a bullet, he takes one from his pocket. If you want a weapon, he guides you to a secret stash in this sacred city. If you want a girl, he directs you to the guesthouse. Three-wheeled taxis, Tri-shaws, fly around the city doing this business.

At Madawatchiya on the edge of the city, where the armed forces set off for the conflict area, I meet a trader who transports food and supplies into Vayvuniya. He is happy that the country has returned to war because he now carries far smaller quantities of goods than in peacetime and is making a much higher profit.

On my way from Anudharapura to Horowpatana, there is a big tank called Mahakanadarawera. As I sit by the tank watching the beautiful scenery; large green heavy-duty Tata trucks suddenly speed past full of proud soldiers with their guns at the ready. In the front seat next to the driver, his elbow resting on the windowsill, his orange robe fluttering in the wind, sits an equally noble Buddhist monk. The label on the front of the truck reads, Jathika Saviya (National Strength).

At a small tea stall beside the tank, I have a little chat with the owners. They too are very happy with the new war situation: lots of young villagers, girls as well as boys, have got good local jobs as Home Guards and no longer worry their parents by going off to Colombo looking for work. They are well paid; they have job security and social status as never before. So the youth are happy and their parents are happy that the war has brought this improvement in their lives. On the billboards along the roadside of this agricultural district, amongst the ads for fertilisers and weed killers, are others which encourage and praise our valiant troops.

In Horowpatana town, where there’s not even a petrol station, you see plenty of people walking around with Nokia N70 mobile phones. Small as it is, there is a lot of traffic in Horowpatana because the government is clearing the thick forest and building condominiums for the security forces. This construction of 3000 new houses in the town will bring new businesses, more money, perhaps a shopping mall; so all the locals are in a good mood, looking forward to richer times.

Beyond Horowpatana, there is a modest little temple by the side of the road. The Buddhist monk here spent the past several years working with the peace-building network run by Colombo NGOs. He is more interested now in searching for Buddhist archaeological sites between the Eastern and North Central provinces where, he says, Tamil and Muslim people have destroyed many of these ruins in order to establish their farms. But his main work is in response to a request from the government to persuade local army deserters to return to their old posts or to take new positions in the Home Guards. During the past 30 years of civil war, each village had an average of 30-40 deserters. It will be good to get them back into the army because they were well trained in the past, unlike the new Home Guards. Besides, when they left the army, these deserters took their weapons with them and have been using them in an unregulated manner since. This holy man is very happy to have these new responsibilities. He has also been asked to participate in the Peace and Democracy rallies in Colombo and to bring 40 people with him each time. Although these rallies are not called every month, so many local people have now joined the Home Guard they don’t have time for the five or six-hour journeys to and from Colombo. He is a bit worried about this.

At his temple I also meet a Montessori School teacher from Welioya. In her after-school time she is being trained in the use of weapons. She is pleased about this as she is earning more money than before and is treated with greater respect by her community. She tells her young girls seeking employment to join the Home Guard. They are very happy with this alternative as the only other jobs are in the Free Trade Zones where they are sarcastically referred to as ‘garment items’ and forced to supplement their meagre pay by working as prostitutes. As Home Guards—in their uniforms, carrying guns like the boys do—they get a good salary and a level of social dignity unimaginable before. A proper government job like this confers the highest possible status in their villages.

Along the roadside, the huge government-owned rice storage barns, where farmers have long delivered their harvest to be bought at controlled prices, have been converted into storage sites for military hardware. As a result, the farmers have to sell their rice to private companies or to individual buyers for the best price they can get. Nonetheless, they regard this as a temporary sacrifice for the bright future they expect once the war is won.

Also read:
Travels in a Militarised Society — 1

  • diordna

    You benefit from this as well, what would you have written otherwise? I appreciate what you do because I get a “part” of the picture about SL from your weblog. But is it all that negative?
    There are a lot of people who benefit from the war but all you described were ticks or mites. How about going after the dogs?

  • nihal pathirana

    How can you generalised this statament to anuradhapura district with out going to in to basic statistics,there is full of imagination in this article

  • sakyam

    I think you are exaggerating the facts.You have to live there for a several weeks at least to understand the situation.Just by talking to a few people you cannot deicide what people are up to or what is really going on there.

  • nandasena

    It is amusing to see some comments. Generally most commentators beleive what ever the governement tells them about the Tamils and what happens in the Tamil areas without ever going to the Tamil areas or without ever meeting a person living in that area!! But when it comes to anything about the Sinhala people or sinhala area it is imagination and they say that without living in that area you cannot judge what is happening there!!

    Thank you Prasanna. We have heard about this from different sources before. Your story confirms what we heard. I agree that there are big sharks who are reaping a big harvest from the war and that is why they are all out for the war and does not worry about the poor people who are dying in the battle field. The average sinhalese man is driven by the false propaganda to support the evil war.
    They don;t stop to think that all this money spent on the war can be utilised for better education, healthcare and job opportunities for the masses instead of going into the pockets of the arms dealers. Who is going to pay for all the destruction caused by the war?

  • Thilanga

    Store houses for paddy are changed into places for storing military hardware! Poor farmers must find their own markets. This government came by giving fertliser subsidy. The farmers who voted the present evil war mongering government deserve this cruel treatment from it.

    There are big sharks who like war. They live on blood money. But what will happen when the war ends? The girls become prostitutes and the men become pimps?

    Every person is trained to use weapons. Soon they will kill each other and anarchy will take over. This is the price we will pay for this ugly war.

  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    Prasanna Ratnayake,
    Thank you for sharing your observations. I have travelled in the areas you mention in the forties to 2007. I have seen the change. It pains me. I learnt Buddhism from priests in Jaffna. The venerable and pious image of a Buddhist priest of yesteryears has been shattered since 1956. I mourn for the suffering of the Tamil people. Now I mourn for what the Sinhala society has become and where it is heading.

    Will those who depend on the war and its economy ever want the war to end? Only those who are deaf cannot hear the bell that is tolling for Sri Lanka.

  • Fazeeha

    Prasanna Ratnayaka,

    I am an academic and have been engaged in research on poverty and changing livelihoods of Mahaweli settlers. I have already presented similar findings in some of my publications. Where are we heading? where is the Sri Lankan culture? (I am not talking about Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim cultures) What are our values? What is the outcome of the whole Mahaweli development project? What kind of a future our children hold? Your article raise concerns about the above questions.

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  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    You portray the scene in Colombo that thousands see but do not wish to perceive. Your writings provoke thought.

  • Well written Prasanna, that’s all I can say. Please ignore any negative comments anybody may make, and continue writing. You are rendering an invaluable service to Mother Lanka by showing what is really going on down there. It’s terribly pathetic but we need to voice these issues more and more, to develop a high level of public support for peace.

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