A Guide to Colombo for CHOGM 2013

Image courtesy AP, via Gulf News

Potemkin City, with a difference: A Guide to Colombo for CHOGM 2013

Your Excellency, Distinguished Delegate, Dear Visitor,

Ayubowan! Vanakkam! Welcome to Colombo! 

You may have heard of how General Potemkin primed Crimea for the pleasure of Catherine the Great and her foreign ambassadors on their southern trip in 1787. Likewise, our own Potemkin, Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapakse, presidential sibling and Secretary Defence and Urban Development, has personally overseen the makeover of Colombo for your pleasure. And we do hope you will enjoy it.

Many Sri Lankans are referring to CHOGM as ‘Show-GM’ and Colombo has been meticulously prepared and curated to ensure the right image is conveyed. One hopes you will agree that the parts of the city you see are indeed looking beautiful. However there is much more to this beatification. After all, even the CHOGM signboards across the city say ‘Sri Lanka: A world within’, which you will be hard pressed to discover without a guide. So here is one.

On Arrival

At the airport, Your Excellency, Head of Government, will be picked up in one of the more than 50 brand new bullet-proof S400 Mercedes Benz cars imported for the summit. For the comfort of your delegation there is a large fleet of brand new Nissan Teanas, Toyota Corollas, 100 forty-one-seater luxury buses and 60 Land Rover Defender jeeps that have all been imported.

Naturally, the total costs of all this is unknown but runs into millions of dollars. While all vehicles will bear special CHOGM number plates they will not reveal to you that Sri Lanka’s public debt has risen alarmingly, to Rs. 3 trillion or nearly 80 per cent of GDP. At a recent meeting of the Sri Lanka Economic Association, economists were reportedly of the view that “the debt incurred was too much, at too high a cost and used excessively on low productive purposes.”

En route 

While you race into Colombo on the shiny new 26 kilometre expressway, you will not be told that it cost 1.8 billion rupees or 14 million US dollars per kilometre, amongst the most expensive in the world, and that it was mostly financed by a loan from China, whose terms are unknown. As you near the city you will come across neatly erected green-coloured screens along the expressway, these are not sound barriers but visual barriers, to ensure the sight of low-income settlements does not disturb you.

The main venues

The primary venue is named after Mahinda Rajapakse himself and to ensure ruthless efficiency it is run by the military; so no worries for you there. And just in front of the venue you can admire the newly redeveloped and spruced up lush green Viharamahadevi Park. However, you will not be told that like much else this was the work of the military not the municipality. And that the daily wage workers employed by the municipality to clean the park lost their jobs when the Navy took over. Like in every other instance of redevelopment none of the local residents or users of the park were meaningfully consulted.

Right in the front of the second main venue, the BMICH, is an imposing tall stone-sculpted standing Buddha. Indeed, you will notice a large number of Buddha statues all over the city. The official guide handed out to you will tell you about how Sri Lanka is the land of tolerance and ethnic harmony upholding the ideals of the Buddha but they will omit to tell you that there is a systematic attempt to ritually stamp the city and country’s landscape with Buddhist icons. The guide will almost certainly not tell you that Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is riding high with the blessings of the regime, and that religious minorities and Muslim and Christian places of worship and businesses in particular are the targets of systematic attacks.

In and around Colombo

In the city itself, residents and occupants on routes to be used by our distinguished guests have received letters requesting that we paint our exteriors and beautify our properties. Brand new fancy bus-shelters have been put up on routes to be taken by you, but the pictures in these shelters will not tell you that little has been invested in improving public transport though prices of tickets have just been raised significantly. For the record, in most other parts of Colombo there are in fact no bus shelters of any kind at all, usually just a little sign.

You will be pleased to see that the streets of Colombo are clean but much of this is thanks to a large force of mostly poor and elderly daily wage-workers employed on harsh terms by private contractors to whom solid waste management has been outsourced. Of course you will never meet these people, they are not invited to the CHOGM banquets. Again, no one will tell you that a clean Colombo does not mean there is no corruption. Forget about the corruption in high value land and property deals, even the custom-made brooches your distinguished first ladies are to be presented with are at the heart of an alleged 15 million rupee scandal.

During your stay you will meet many young and old Sri Lankans who will tell you Colombo is shining thanks to the Rajapakses. However, none of you (or even them for that matter) are likely to meet one of the 70,000 families who will be forcibly evicted and moved to northern and eastern parts of the city to ensure Colombo becomes a world-class garden city. They will certainly not meet Madonna (name changed), a domestic worker, who has lived in a low income settlement near Castle Street in Borella for more than 30 years but whose family is being forcibly moved into a much smaller flat in a high-rise located further away. She will not be able to tell you that rather than receive any compensation for her house that is to be demolished, she actually has to pay just over a million rupees to the state over the next 20 years to secure a title to this flat, starting with a down-payment of 50,000 rupees very soon, which she does not have. Nor will she able to tell your distinguished selves that the Urban Development Authority (UDA) did not even heed her community’s simple request to resettle them together in the high-rise blocks.

Many of you are likely to drop in or pass-by the renovated Dutch Hospital, the mini-stand of the old Race Course, and the Independence Square—initiatives the UDA loves to boast about. And for once, without anyone having to tell you, if you spend enough time to look carefully you will see yourself that though projected as ‘public’ spaces, these are in fact spaces where the less privileged come to labour and the well-heeled to slake their thirst for a life-style.

Perhaps you will also notice that many of these ‘public’ spaces are not gated but no one will tell you that internal frontiers, far from disappearing are only becoming more aestheticised. With low-income communities being pushed out, the city is heading towards becoming more segregated. And not everyone can actually even enter Colombo, like the hundreds of family members from the North of those disappeared who were prevented from coming to Colombo for a demonstration some time ago. Again, you may not meet any of them for they too are not invited to the CHOGM dinners and parties.

Things you should miss

The little of Colombo and Sri Lanka that will be on display for Your Excellency, Distinguished Delegate and Dear Visitor, fortunately does not include some sites and events of ugly importance. One such you should avoid is the Supreme Court in Hulfstdorp. But you may run into Chief Justice Mohan Peiris who until just a few months ago was serving as a loyal Attorney General before being suddenly elevated to Chief Justice after the unconstitutional impeachment of the former Chief Justice.

Make sure you don’t attend the discussion organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka on commonwealth values and the rule of law. Fortunately, the current and a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and a senior representative from International Bar Association won’t be there either as their visas, granted in August, have now been revoked.

Well, that’s that, almost. This guide would be incomplete if it did not recognise the glorious achievements of our military in transforming Colombo’s landscape. Under the leadership of President Rajapakse and his beloved brothers and family, they are being used to fundamentally restructure the Sri Lankan public and political sphere. Isn’t it wonderful that despite all the accusations of egregious brutalisation during and after the war they are now a force for extensive beautification? This is just one of the many steps on a uniquely Sri Lankan path to post-war reconciliation, about which we hope you will try and learn more.

‘Imagine, explore and discover the Island of endless opportunity.’

  • Dayv Mattt

    Very good article. Thanks for writing it. I took a walk through the Slave Island area the other week and it’s sad that such a close community will be displaced in the name of “fancy”.

  • My View

    I only wish to note that the Buddha statue at Bauddhaloka Mawatha is included in your article grossly out of context. That Buddha statue has been standing there for many many years not too far away from the Church House only a few metres away from the other side of the road. Funnily enough I saw no mention of the Church house? Why don’t you mention that numerous kovils, mosques dot the Colombo landscape and have done so for decades. Why this selective journalism? Why don’t you mention that the majority of the Colombo populace are composed of Tamils and Muslims, and that the Mayor of Colombo is a Muslim. I hear you on your allegations of corruption, malpractice and issues relating to low-income dwellers and an increasingly ‘up-market’ Colombo. But regarding the religious ‘invasion’ issue I beg to differ. Yes. there have been issues such as the BBS etc in recent times, but to make that a sweeping generalisation is a farce and a crime to this cosmopolitan city.

    • mcgillian

      Do you not know how the mayor of colombo came to be the mayor? If you do, you’d realize your argument regarding him is utterly meaningless.

      You say the majority of people in Colombo are Tamil and Muslim – funny that the Census of Sri Lanka differs with you on that.

      Don’t make such baseless allegations without any backing whatsoever.

      • sach

        How did the mayor came to power? not via votes?

        • mcgillian

          I’m referring to the last mayor of Colombo, Uvais Mohamed Imitiyas, who is also a Muslim and was Mayor of 5 years.

          His ‘democratic’ story is below:

          Uvais Mohamed Imitiyas was the Mayor of Colombo. Imtiyas was an Auto rickshaw driver from an impoverished background who contested local government elections on an independent ticket.[2] At that stage he had no realistic chance of being elected. However, technical electoral issues (proposing an underage candidate in the list) meant that the UNP candidates led by Sirisena Cooray could not contest the election. An agreement was reached to use the symbol of Imitiyas’s group on the condition that he would renounce the seat if elected, allowing the UNP to appoint a mayor of their own choice. UNP led by Cooray campaigned for the independent group and they won under the spectacles symbol, but Imitiyas reneged on the agreement and remained in office, joining the ruling UPFA and did not stand for re-election.

          You say the majority of the Colombo’s population consists of Tamils and Muslims…

          The last tamil mayor was born pre-independence and was only mayor for 1 year, 96-97. The last tamil mayor before him was forty years before him, also for just 1 year, 53-54. No tamil born post-independence has every been mayor. And no Muslim was elected mayor prior to 1960

  • equally anonymous

    Maybe you didn’t look at the CVs of attending CHOGM delegates? They have already done all of this and more and in fact, your diatribe would sound, to them, like kindergarten stuff! viz cost of Defenders, Charlie would be able to advise you there. We are at the point where development is necessary. The cost may seem excessive, but look to the future.

  • SriLankanComplainSoMuch

    Complain complain complain complain. Meh.

  • David Blacker

    Good golly, what a whiner. Colombo’s finally looking like it should, so enjoy it. The municipality is a bunch of incompetent layabouts who can’t work themselves out of a garbage bag, which is why the military (mostly the Civil Defense Force and the Army Engineers) have been deployed. Someone’s got to do the work if the CMC is too busy driving trishaws and goofing off. Victoria Park was a dirty, overgrown wasteland populated by perverts and of no use to any Colombo residents beyond the couples too poor for hotel rooms. And what’s the big emphasis on imported vehicles; it’s not like Charles & Co are going to settle for a Micro Panda, no? 99% of SL’s vehicles are imported anyway.

    The economics of it all, may be dodgy, but hey, what else is new?

    • Sujith Bandara

      quite right Mr Blacker,

    • Eranjene Sandun

      Mr. David Blacker..You are a wonderful man…Its greatt to find you here…i read many of your books and the main one being ‘ A cause untrue’….

      • David Blacker

        Thanks. That’s the only book I’ve had published, actually.

  • Nimesh Ekanayake

    Utter [edited out] spoken by the diaspora… Mr.President is doing an excellent duty to this country. If you are humane, please at least close your eyes and let them do their duty.. Stop posting these [edited out]

    • moot

      Okay good sire. We’ll keep our mouths shut, eyes closed.

    • mcgillian

      At least he’s frank enough to tell everyone that there is something terrible happening since we must cover our eyes.

  • Rak

    spot on :D

  • nil vatura

    This is great. But what’s missing is the burden on patients in local government hospitals. Many hospitals including NHSL has kept 2 of the 7 ICU beds vacant for ChOGM. how about that?

  • Debbie Philip

    This should be put in to every CHOGM delegate’s welcome pack since apparently ‘someone’ managed to squeeze in anti-Channel 4 propaganda as well!

  • Wise Geek

    Yes, this might be true… But its better than the UN coming after human rights and the US trying to tap into the country. Over spent and too much color to Colombo? Aha… Trying to keep the problems in Sri Lanka to ourselves and stopping the UN and the US from interfering? Hell Yes! :)

  • andaraala

    love the sarcasm….and totally agree with everything that’s written

  • lanka

    A [edited out] who writes anonymously as he just can’t appreciate whatever development that has been done. UK, America and others did not develop overnight.

  • Doc Oc

    Brilliant!!!

  • RamzaMatale

    Mufti Ismail Menk
    ?@muftimenk

    To those looking for faults, even the straightest line appears to have a curve.

  • Sri Lankan

    Facts shared are nothing new to the average Colombo public who have access to internet.

    Whilst I agree on corruption rest of the article seems to be a personal vendetta against the journalist who seems to be obviously having vested interest.

    For starters I see no issues with military doing beautification activities as I too agree with you about their precision work. It’s good to engage military engaged in productive work that leaving them in occupied. If those “workers” who was suppose to do their work did the job military involvement would not have been necessary in the first place.

  • Sri Lankan

    Any city in the world that has been developed requires cleaning up and resettlement of people in the core city areas. Whether you like it or not that’s part of the development.

    Go to a Muslim country and talk about religious rights! This is country that is multi ethnic and multi religious with majority Buddhists, thus see no reason why they shouldn’t be erecting Buddha statues all over!

  • Ishan

    I’m a catholic. Apart from your political views on the summit you have no right to say the government is ruthlessly making arrangements to ruin other religious aspects. As Catholics me and my family isn’t been effected by any of the mentioned. Nevertheless, I would like to remind you David Cameron, Prince Charles or any other delegate will remove all the developed and take them back to there country. All these will be enjoyed by the Sri Lankans after the conference hopefully including you. Sri Lanka is a country which gives you the freedom to fail. You’re failure and you’re arguments are invalid.

  • Trehan Munasinghe

    This article does speak some truth… but has been drafted incorrectly, any country that has an International Meeting such as CHOGM, ASIAN Summit etc should prepare for it, YES I agree with you on the tremendous cost, but the funny thing you forgot to mention is that 70% of the population in Colombo consists of Tamils and Muslims….. So your argument about the many Buddhist statues is out of context… People in Colombo are satisfied with the new look city, but later will have to pay a huge cost in tax, YES we know that !! but this was a necessary improvement/long over due for the city. So lets not look at CHOGM or Sri Lanka with a one tracked mindset, try and see if we can at least point out the shortcomings and make necessary changes where possible and move forward.

  • Jason Samaranayake

    good article but some facts are a bit exagerated! ie: Bulletproof cars?

  • radaghast

    Many of you have commented that the development of Colombo is a good thing. I agree completely. But what all of you have failed to consider is the sustainability of it all. How plausible is it to sustain these beautiful new looks of Colombo once the CHOGM is over? Once the military moves out, how long do you think Colombo will remain this way? Lets see what you have got to say about this in a couple of months, shall we?

    • David Blacker

      Who says the military is moving out? ;)

  • Facts!!

    My dear long lost diaspora anonymous friend. Here is what
    you didn’t say in this article.

    The facts!!

    Colombo’s beauty didn’t come over night. It has been happening
    for very long time thanks to Secretary of defence. If you want to see the facts you are welcome
    here : – http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?p=108852001#post108852001

    Is it possible to build a 26km expressway form airport and grow
    trees in the city in one day you idiot? Since the city was neglected for very
    long time with his power he uses military personals to do some clean-up work. What’s
    wrong with that since we don’t have a war anymore to fight for? [Edited out]

    Most expensive in the world ?? :—————–>Man do some google search will you?

    Bullet-proof S400 Mercedes Benz ??:—————–> Really ??

    In most other parts of Colombo there are in
    fact no bus shelters of any kind at all, usually just a little sign:—————–> Which part of Colombo is that ??

    You will be pleased to see that the streets of
    Colombo are clean but much of this is thanks to a large force of mostly poor
    and elderly daily wage-workers employed on harsh terms by private contractors
    to whom solid waste management has been outsourced:—————–> you just
    describes capitalism. So what is your suggestion then? Fire all those people
    and don’t care to clean ?

    However, none of you (or even them for that
    matter) are likely to meet one of the 70,000 families who will be forcibly evicted and moved
    to northern and eastern parts of the city to ensure Colombo becomes a world-class
    garden city :—————–>why you forget to mention the money government
    pay for those house owner and the new housing units for low income families ??
    what you are trying to say let them live in the slums ??

    http://www.uda.lk/investment_relocation.html

    If you spend enough time to look carefully you
    will see yourself that though projected as ‘public’ spaces, these are in fact
    spaces where the less privileged come to labour and the well-heeled to slake
    their thirst for a life-style :—————–> In Which country every citizen
    can afford to buy every things they sell ?? Again blame the capitalism not
    Srilanka for that? Are those less privileged people starving?? in fact have you
    ever see a srilankan dead without food ??

    While all vehicles will bear special CHOGM
    number plates they will not reveal to you that Sri Lanka’s public debt has
    risen alarmingly, to Rs. 3 trillion or nearly 80 per cent of GDP:—————–>yes and it used to be more than 100% thanks to
    your war. We just bring it down. Here is the fact you missed :-
    http://www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=ce&v=143

    Next time do some research before you cry .

  • Sasikumar Arasaratnam

    My dear long lost diaspora anonymous friend. Here is what
    you didn’t say in this article.

    The facts!!

    Colombo’s beauty didn’t come over night. It has been happening
    for very long time thanks to Secretary of defence. If you want to see the facts you are welcome
    here : – http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?p=108852001#post108852001

    Is it possible to build a 26km expressway form airport and grow
    trees in the city in one day you idiot? Since the city was neglected for very
    long time with his power he uses military personals to do some clean-up work. What’s
    wrong with that since we don’t have a war anymore to fight for? You have no
    facts but whining likes a little girl.

    Most expensive in the world ?? Man do some google search will you?

    Bullet-proof S400 Mercedes Benz ?? Really ??

    In most other parts of Colombo there are in
    fact no bus shelters of any kind at all, usually just a little sign.:- Which part of Colombo is that ??

    You will be pleased to see that the streets of
    Colombo are clean but much of this is thanks to a large force of mostly poor
    and elderly daily wage-workers employed on harsh terms by private contractors
    to whom solid waste management has been outsourced:- you just
    describes capitalism. So what is your suggestion then? Fire all those people
    and don’t care to clean ?

    However, none of you (or even them for that
    matter) are likely to meet one of the 70,000 families who will be forcibly evicted and moved
    to northern and eastern parts of the city to ensure Colombo becomes a world-class
    garden city :- why you forget to mention the money government
    pay for those house owner and the new housing units for low income families ??
    what you are trying to say let them live in the slums ?? http://www.uda.lk/investment_relocation.html

    If you spend enough time to look carefully you
    will see yourself that though projected as ‘public’ spaces, these are in fact
    spaces where the less privileged come to labour and the well-heeled to slake
    their thirst for a life-style:- In Which country every citizen
    can afford to buy every things they sell ?? Again blame the capitalism not
    Srilanka for that? Are those less privileged people starving?? in fact have you
    ever see a srilankan dead without food ??

    While all vehicles will bear special CHOGM
    number plates they will not reveal to you that Sri Lanka’s public debt has
    risen alarmingly, to Rs. 3 trillion or nearly 80 per cent of GDP:- yes and it used to be more than 100% thanks to
    your war. We just bring it down. Here is the fact you missed :- http://www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=ce&v=143

    Next time do some research before you cry .

  • Praveen Jayawardane

    raji j

    ”’During your stay you will meet many young and old Sri Lankans who will
    tell you Colombo is shining thanks to the Rajapakses. However, none of
    you (or even them for that matter) are likely to meet one of the 70,000
    families who will be forcibly evicted and moved to northern and eastern
    parts of the city to ensure Colombo becomes a world-class garden city.
    They will certainly not meet Madonna (name changed), a domestic worker,
    who has lived in a low income settlement near Castle Street in Borella
    for more than 30 years but whose family is being forcibly moved into a
    much smaller flat in a high-rise located further away. She will not be
    able to tell you that rather than receive any compensation for her house
    that is to be demolished, she actually has to pay just over a million
    rupees to the state over the next 20 years to secure a title to this
    flat, starting with a down-payment of 50,000 rupees very soon, which she
    does not have. ”

    do you think houses that low income family is getting better than these ones? http://www.defence.lk/img/Mihindu_Sethpura_mega_housing_20131118_06p25.jpg
    check out what those people getting.can they build house like this in their own?

  • Dutugamunu

    If any one lives in Sri Lanka or who is aware of what is happening in the country who will exactly know what you try to tell us . It is not our interest to know or repeat  it again and again  with what is happening in this country , not only about  last four years , obiviously since 1948 .if you have real enthusiasm and interest to  be a genuine partner of leading our country to a better place  as you wish or if you have suggestions that what role of system will fit to us and  whom  do you think that  you will grapple the hand to fulfill that great task .you may know that we never lack of pundits who predicts and write about  what would best to the country . however , they are unsuccessful , and failures . That is why we still writing and moaning about . Therefore i would appreciate to know from the writers like you to initiate to write about what is best fit to our country economically and socially .

  • Dutugamunu

    To radaghast.
    It should be our duty to look after how it is now . Do you think that Goverment alone can do all the things . I suppose you must civilise first .if our city is clean who should get the credit ? We all as Sri lankan . I do not know where these people come from and remember , the world we live now is made by us , if you want , you can take it as you wish my friend .