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