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…