Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Travels in a Militarised Society – 3

In Colombo Again – November 2007

In Bambalapitya, I am texting a friend while crossing the road. A man in a new military uniform I did not recognise accosts me, “What are you texting?” “I’m just texting one of my friends.” “Show it to me. I want to see that.” I smile, “Okay, you can read it,” and hold out my phone to him. I notice how young he is, with just a small show of adolescent fuzz above his lip. “And what’s in your bag?” “My laptop.” “Can you switch on your laptop?” “Yes.” I switch it on, he stares at it. In a friendly tone I ask, “Why are you checking my phone and my laptop?” He explains that the Tamil Tigers are using “infra red technology” to trigger bombs and explosives, so they have been instructed to check all these devices when they see people using them in the streets. “Even the Sinhala Tigers are using these things now.”

I walk down to the Café Lavinia, where the air conditioning feels cold after the 30º heat outside. I order a luxurious coffee and get to work on the free Wi-Fi. The Lanka-e-News page pops up. The heading reads: Is the Eastern Province under Military Rule? I scroll through the other items. A journalist has asked a Cabinet Minister at his news conference how many people have been recruited into the North and East civil defence forces over the past year. He answers, 250,000. My travels from the North Central Province to the East and from Western Colombo to the South have revealed that these new recruits are rarely given proper training. Some Home Guard youngsters—boys and girls—told me they don’t even know how to unload their new guns. I think too of the village blacksmiths that have been making copies of the Chinese T-56s, called T-kattas, and small hand guns called Gal-kattas for years. These craftsmen, who repair weapons for the local police, say that the old police guns are worn out; their replicas work better and are more reliable. Experts like these could have supplied weapons and lessons in how to use them far more cheaply than the government’s option.

I reflect on the fact that the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka which gets all the attention is only one element in the matrix of social contradictions that are contributing to the war situation. Caste, class, gender, employment, poverty, resources and land issues are also involved. In the past, local police stations were set up to deal with crimes that arise from caste and other social conflicts. At the moment the war is the overdetermining and predominant issue, but these other long-standing problems still burn beneath its surface. With the government giving arms to Montessori school teachers, monks, teenagers, farmers and many others, what good can come of it? For most of these people, their immediate enemy is not a Tamil Tiger—a person somewhere far away whom they have never met—but those in their own communities with whom they have serious issues.

What none of this takes into account is the criminal underworld; the networks of gangsters, many of whom have connections to Cabinet ministers in Colombo, municipal politicians in other districts or local council authorities in the villages. These are the drugs barons, the contract killers, the thugs who collect ransoms and protection money—sinister characters of every description. And the freelancers: even in the High Security areas of the capital, it is possible to rent a gun, kill someone who has offended you, and return the weapon the next day. Some of these criminals slaughter whole families in the night to settle a score or on orders from their powerful masters.

As I sit with my coffee contemplating this nightmare, a cheerful friend who works for an international NGO sits down beside me with her coffee. She’s just come from a really successful workshop with the civilian actors who are going to organise peace and democracy. She’s very optimistic that they will sort everything out. She asks me to help her select the best photo in her digital camera for her report to the funders.

Also read:
Travels in a Militarised Society — 2
Travels in a Militarised Society — 1