Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Travels in a Militarised Society — 1

Boralla Junction, Colombo – October 2007

I am waiting for a bus holding a small transparent plastic bag of fruit for my mother. As usual, the buses are sounding their horns, conductors are shouting out the stops on their route, lottery ticket sellers are offering fortunes. In the middle of Boralla Junction there is a Bo tree by a little temple from which a loudspeakers project Pirith chanting. On every corner of the busy crossroads large posters bless our three military forces – air, land and sea — faithfully pursuing their duty until the final victory. Other posters advertise the Superstar competition on Sirasa TV, modelled on American Idol, encouraging us to text in and record our votes for the candidates. Prostitutes and beggars who have worked Boralla Junction for years, older now but still plying their trades, move amongst the crowds.

Suddenly, an ordinary person in civilian clothes accosts me, “Can I check your ID?” I am taken aback for a moment; then ask politely, “Who are you?” “You don’t have to know who I am. I am a Boralla Junction Civil Guard. We work for the Police.” I hand over my card. Twice he asks me, “Are you Sinhala?” Twice I answer, “Yes, you can see it on my ID card.” He checks my transparent bag, “What’s in it?” “Fruits.” He throws my ID card back at me, turns away and accosts another person.

I spot my bus with its slogan: “This is The Nation of Buddha” and climb up. Inside a sticker reads, “This bus does not charge for Buddhist Sunday School children or Buddhist monks”. After herding people onto his bus from the footboard until it is crammed full, the conductor moves up and down amongst us, gesturing aggressively with his hand and shouting: “Give me your money! Your money!” Honking its horn, the bus jerks forward and starts chasing another bus.

At the next stop, the Castle Maternity Hospital, many pregnant women are pushing to get out. The driver has no patience and the bus starts to move again, making the women jump off. Every ten metres along our route, on both sides of the road, is a member of the Home Guard, the Police, the Army or the Air Force. After a few more stops we are nearing the Parliament Junction and pass the Ambilipitya monument. It was designed by Jagath Weerasinghe as a memorial to the students massacred in the late 1980s. The small temple-like structure is overgrown with weeds and has become a security checkpoint. The guards go into the little hall to have a piss when the need occurs. This and many other checkpoints are sponsored by banks and private companies nowadays: their banners are pasted on the walls, roofs and barriers of these security posts.

When I reach home, Mother is watching an old Hindi movie on TV. From time to time the film is interrupted by an ad break made by one of the country’s finest filmmakers. It’s a beautiful ad; with emotive music and spectacular images it summons our brave population to join the armed forces and defend the motherland. (This highly respected filmmaker has also recently published a book for the peace industry that analyses the relationship between the nation’s conflict and its cinema.) Other less elegant TV ads exhort people to be vigilant, to suspect everyone, including members of your own family—even yourself; advising that bombs can be hidden anywhere, that we are all in danger and must report our suspicions immediately day or night to the military or police authorities.

Shortly after 7 p.m., in the midst of the News, another ad pops up for “Prayathna (Effort) for the Peoples’ Movement”, giving a website address. We are not told what this “movement” is; in fact, its existence is limited to posters and these TV ads. With only 3% of the population computer literate, it cannot be a very big movement, whatever it stands for. Immediately after the Prayathna ad another pops up for “Mindada” (two hearts joined by the arrow of love), telling viewers they need not wait for tomorrow to arrange their marriage, it can be done today! Of course, given that 28% of the country’s women are war widows; this is more likely to generate a social movement than the other summons to make an effort.

Switching to another channel, there is a serious discussion in progress about how to conquer the Vanni, the Tamil district in the centre of the country. The panel of civilian men, who call themselves academics, and Buddhist monks, are making war in the TV studio in their immaculate saffron robes and well-ironed shirts, with benefit of AC and bottled mineral water. Loudly, belligerently, they outdo each other, shouting “We will win!” “We will crush the Enemy!” “We will prevail!” “We will have a proper Sinhala New Year in April!”

On a third channel another big discussion is going on between members of the Sangha and some more self-designated academics. They are devising a Buddhist justification for war; how to legitimate the process of annihilating non-Sinhala elements of the nation. A listener phones in to protest that this is not the Buddhist way. The panel of authorities strongly and unanimously reject this. Ours is a revised Buddhism; a Sangha-ism that accepts no dissent.