Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Travels in a Militarised Society 6 – Strolling along Ward Place, Colombo

It is 10th December 2007, Human Rights Day. I am taking a stroll along Ward Place from Boralla to Lipton Circus. To either side of me are new buildings that have been erected in the past 20-30 years. I am remembering my senior colleague, Reginald Mendies. Reg lost his hand reaching up to catch a bomb and protect the comrades ranked behind him during the mid-’50s language policy confrontations. During the ’90s he told me many stories about the geopolitical demographics of Boralla. He even had stories of individual buildings. What had happened here was this: in 1958 and 1983, thousands of Tamils of the area had to flee in a great rush to save their lives. Many were small traders who ran their businesses from street stalls or peddled their goods along the pavements. When they had to leave, they asked their Sinhala neighbours to safeguard their property until they would return to reclaim it and take up their normal lives again. This is not what happened. Their neighbours agreed and watched the exodus. Some Sinhala residents of Boralla took over these abandoned businesses and, having good connections and no political or ethnic problems, prospered to such an extent that many are now millionaires and leading figures in the Sinhala national project. When some of these Tamil owners returned, they found that most of their houses were gone. New buildings have gone up in which their former friends now run major businesses build up from the goods and properties inherited from their erstwhile neighbours.

At the junction of Kinsey Road, I waited to cross on the red light. On my right was the old OCIC Cinema Society, which was run for 25 years by Father Ernest Poruthota. From here some of our talented directors emerged: Asoka Handagama and Prasanna Vithanage. On the road to my left the painting by Chandraguptha Thenuwara which honours the spot where the LTTE killed Nelan Thiruchelvam. Set back from the street, ICES, the organisation he founded which continues to this day as a centre of culture, law and research. This junction is of importance to me personally: on the right the place where I saw and learned the visual and aesthetic discourses of cinema; on my left the site of work by Regi Siriwardene and many others that contributed so much to our awareness and our study of human rights, political and anthropological social science and ethnic realities. Though in time it became an élite place, it also gave many unprivileged members of our generation, little grasshoppers like me, the intellectual tools to analyse and see into the depths of our society and its history.

I continue my strolling monologue as I pass the red gateposts of a living monument of Sri Lankan history. No one is in the little guard hut. This is the home of former president JR Jayawardene, the man who introduced the executive presidency and the ‘open economy’. Of course, I have my own criticism of both these policies; but for the moment what I am thinking about is the way each character that followed JR in the top job claimed in advance that they would sort out the abuses of this constitutional dictatorship. Once in post, each one in reality expanded the definition and the practices of what such an Executive President could do.

In 2008 Sri Lanka celebrates 60 years of independence from the British. Of these 60 years, half have been consumed by civil wars; North and South, we have specialised in killing each other. Many people excuse this distortion of national development by pointing to JR’s constitution as the source of these problems. Yes, the executive presidency was a mistake, the ‘open economy’ another error; but the man is long since dead, there have been plenty of years to correct the problems, why should we still blame him for the horrors of the present? These claims that it is all JR’s fault are used to cover up the wilful suspension of human rights, collective sanity and social justice – the impunity with which our society is immolating itself.

Next on my little walk, I pass the Monitoring Mission, the institution set up to keep an eye on the Cease Fire and ensure that there was enough calm for the country to recover from the previous 20 years of hell and to strive for a more equitable future. Fifteen or twenty metres ahead of me I can see some police and army guys being agitated in the middle of the road. I don’t know what’s going on but take off my MP3 player, on which I was listening to the Somali singer K’Naan, and hesitate a bit to see if I can figure it out. I ask a policeman if any incident has occurred. “No, nothing important. The Security Forces are trying to calm down some students demonstrating in front of the University Grant Commission.” As I approach I see that a huge blue Leyland police truck has been positioned to block the main road. I hadn’t noticed until this moment that there had been no traffic on the road. My eyes begin to weep from the teargas spreading through the air. As I turn away towards the McCarthy Hospital to take a detour and escape the suffocating gas, I can hear the dull thud of rubber bullets. I am trying to get to Odel.

To be continued…

  • Can I add something about the beautiful Colombo?

    Colombo (Sinhala: , pronounced [ˈkoləmbə]; Tamil: கொழும்பு) is the largest city and commercial capital of Sri Lanka. Located on the west coast of the island and adjacent to Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the administrative capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo is a busy and vibrant city with a mixture of modern life and colonial ruins[2] and a city population of over 600,000 people.[1]

    The name Colombo, first introduced by the Portuguese in 1505, is believed to be derived from the classical Sinhalese name Kolon thota, meaning “port on the river Kelani”.[3] It has also been suggested that the name may be derived from the Sinhalese name Kola-amba-thota which means “harbor with leafy mango trees”.[4]

    Due to its large natural harbour and its strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes, Colombo was known to ancient traders 2,000 years ago. However it was only made the capital of the island when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire in 1815,[5] and its status as capital was retained when the nation received independence in 1948. In 1978, when administrative functions were moved to Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, Colombo was designated as the commercial capital of Sri Lanka.

    Like many cities, Colombo’s urban area extends well beyond the boundaries of a single local authority, encompassing other Municipal and Urban Councils. The main city is home to a majority of the Sri Lanka’s corporate offices, restaurants and entertainment venues.[4] Famous landmarks in Colombo include the Galle Face Green, the Viharamahadevi Park as well as the National Museum.

  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    As a person in his seventies, I identify myself with your narratives. I also painfully remember the 1956 mobs on Galle road. I shall leave that to another day when I can bring myself to face the memory of that trauma.

    Your mention of the property of the Tamil owners who left their property in the hands of Sinhala friends reminds me of my cousins – one in Ratmalana, another in Kandy and a third one in Anuradhapura. I shall not mention of the cases of other relatives and friends of the series of riots since 1956 as it would be a long as the Mahabaratha or Ramayana.

    In the 1977 riots she, her husband and two baby daughters had to flee from their home to Jaffna (I shall not mention the village for the safety of her relatives who still live there.) They gave the keys to the house with their Sinhala friends and neighbour. When they returned after six months, the friends were occupying the house. But the valuable papers of ownership of the house etc were in the house. The Sinhala neighbour would not even let them in the house. Other neighbours just stood and watched. They would not even talk to her. Many times throughout the years she appealed to them to give back the house. they abused her and then they threatened to kill her if she showed up again.

    She filed a police complaint. The police wanted the deed of ownership which was in the house. She went to the Registrars Office to get a copy. There were none. She went to the Housing Ministry without any results. She and her husband spoke Sinhalese fluently. She got a Tamil lawyer to look into it. He gave up. Then she got a Sinhala lawyer to help. He gave up saying that nothing can be done. Her Sinhala friends who knows of her ownership inquired and found out the house was now owned by the rogue who took over the house. All the documents were in his name. Her papers are no longer available. This was after the 1983 riots.

    She bought a house in her village next to her sisters house who was displaced from Kandy with her police constable husband and two small children. Her village was occupied by the Armed forces after the Kobbakadduwa operations in 1992. Her husband had died by then. She and her sisters family were displaced to Jaffna. She was still trying to get the legal system to get her house in Ratmalana back.

    When Jaffna displaced in 1995, she and her daughters and her sisters family went as refugees to Canada and UK. Her house in a village North of Jaffna is occupied by the SL Sinhala Army since 1992. No rent. All the houses that were not destroyed by the Kobbakaduwa operation there are occupied by the army without rent.

    This is one short Tale of Two Communities. We are like two stars. Attempts to put us together will result in a Supernova. Neither star will survive as we knew them.

  • Kumar Ranasinghe

    There were few Sinhalese thugs who took advantages of situations. They will do it to even a Sinhala neighbour if a situation arises. There are reported incidents. Therefore do not consider sinhala and tamils are as two stars. We are a one sun. The lawyer who did the convenyancing when your cousin bought the property has a copy of the deed. She can try him.

  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    Thanks. I shall tell her that. May be she will try again when she comes to take her house in Jaffna back from the SL Army!!! They are not Thugs. They only obey orders from thugs.

  • Punitham

    JRJ had more than the power needed to solve the problem(of course he never intended to solve the problem, having started it in the 40s), but he chose to magnify it maliciously by bringing India into the equation, Sorry for talking about the bitter side of our past.
    Groundviews is just a bit too late for many Tamils(and Sinhalese) who still wish SL were just the one sun and not the two stars.

  • seevali abeysekera

    Those of us who are ordinary citizens can only speculate as to what actually triggered the 1983 orgy of looting and killing of innocent Tamils on the streets of Colombo. The grief brought about by death of the dozen or so soldiers is the commonly held assumption. If this was indeed the ” trigger ” – and do forgive me for using this word, then the Sinhala people should ask themselves what values and standards they actually uphold. Soldiers die in battle – this does not give the right to kill innocent civilians far away from the theatre of battle. The sad fact is, to this day, not one single perpetrator, either living or deceased has been held accountable or been brought to justice. This is something that the Sinhalese, as a supposed civilised and “non-violent” people should be deeply ashmed of. If there is a collective conscience within the Sinhala nation, an apology to the Tamil people should be the least that must be demanded from the GoSL. Sadly, that is not going to be forthcoming because Sri Lankans have never had the ability to elect enlightened leaders who are able to rise above the “yakko” mentality that appears to be the common denominator for all Sri Lankan politicians. Leaders after all are elected by the people and are but a reflection and indeed microcosm of the values of the nation.