Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Travels in a Militarised Society – 7 – Cultural Iconography: Odel Present and Past

I enter Odel from the car park side with echoes of the student protest and the rubber bullets in my ears. I wet a hankie with my water bottle and wipe the tears from my eyes. Odel is bedecked with pre-Christmas colours: this old white colonial mansion is decorated with classy, elegant peacock coloured angels, birds and fairy lights. The day is hot as usual. As I cross the threshold, a soft mist of water from above the door baptises me; a gentle moment of luxury courtesy of the management. Then, less gently, the private security guards search my bag. I might be carrying a bomb! Inside, to the musak of Christmas carols, I float through the international world of fashion and opulence: Hugo Boss so handsome, Naomi Campbell on the catwalk, Ralph Lauren from top to toe, perfumes including special fragrances for men, Lush soaps for lush ladies, a Sushi bar, French and Italian coffees, wines from anywhere on earth, jewellery glittering with the fabled gems of our land… And so on. I am on another planet, the planet of elegance and beauty where I can be wrapped in aromatic softness, cuddled by dreams that circle the globe promising they can come true… if … if …

I run into a couple of my NGO friends. They have recently got married and are setting up their own little business. They are cheerful, optimistic, smiling a lot. In my head I hear Paul Simon singing: “…why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute”.

Suddenly there’s a politician hanging around in my fantasy world. I cannot remember which party he is in now since he, like others, is a floor-crosser. His two hefty body guards have immaculate white shirts, mobile phones and pistols displayed on their belts. I am not floating any more. Behind and beneath the sweet smells and seductive sights, there is something else.

Yes, this perfect fantasy world revolves 360 degrees and I am back twenty years. Twenty years ago this beautiful mansion was a Special Forces camp. Many university students and youth from Colombo and the surrounding areas who were suspected of being JVP or anti-state activists were brought here. Most of them never came home again. Everyone knew what was going on in here and avoided the place not to hear the sounds. I cannot say how many young corpses are buried beneath this beautiful Odel of which we are so proud, where we can be part of the proper international commercial world.

Our present Minister for the Environment, Champika Ranawaka, a JHU parliamentarian, is the man who defends all the necessary repressions of the present time, the man who protects us from the neo-imperialism of foreign NGOs and governments who moan about human rights. He also has an interesting history associated with this place. I cannot remember which torture camp he was taken to after being picked up in Boralla in September 1989, either the one here at Odel or the one at Colombo University. He was held for three months. After this he published a series of articles, entitled Amusahonaka Willangula, about his experience in Divaina’s Wednesday Supplement. Amusahonaka refers to the ancient practice of putting corpses unburied and uncremated into cemetery areas where they would be dealt with by birds and animals of prey. Willangula are handcuffs. During his time in the torture camp he had felt like a handcuffed, abandoned body dumped in a place where he was being devoured. In 1992 several of his colleagues were arrested again. They were suspected of being involved in plans for a coup against President Premadasa. An NGO called the Movement for Defence Democratic Rights (MDDR) provided the legal means to release them from goal.

In a context in which every twenty-four hours, in the North, South, Central, East and West of Sri Lanka, several people are killed by aerial bombardments, claymore bombs, artillery shells, hand grenades, suicide bombers and a world-class catalogue of different bullets; I am happy to learn that our Minister of the Environment is deeply concerned to do something about Sri Lanka’s carbon footprint. Although our Minister explains that it is urgent to defeat terrorism in order to avoid this danger to the planet’s health; what I wonder is whether the human footprint will disappear before we manage to get rid of the carbon footprint.

These thoughts, these quicksands of the past and the present, make me forget shopping and want to get out of Odel. As I reach the road, I see the students who have been beaten, clinging to the iron railings, still unable to see and trying to get the teargas out of their lungs. So, on this Human Rights Day, 10th December, this is the government’s gift. Ironically, these same students’ union is allied with the JVP, whose parliamentarians are allied with the government, enjoying the luxuries of power and privilege and denying vehemently that there are any human rights issues of concern in Sri Lanka. My mind is disoriented. I don’t know how to understand this: in the second JVP uprising of the late ’80s and early ’90s, they lost 60,000 people. They in turn killed more 6,577 of their adversaries. During this time, they were dependent on Amnesty International, which brought their plight to the attention of the world and put much effort into protecting their human rights. Amnesty’s support for the JVP was so effective that in 1991 Defence Minister Ranjan Wijerathne called Amnesty a terrorist organisation, a wolf in lamb’s clothing out to demonise Sri Lankans. Now the JVP are partners of the government by day and champions of ‘the people’ by night. This is the strange choreography of opportunism, of those who have power without responsibility. They call themselves Marxist but they are Mask-ist. Not only do they deny that there are any human rights problems in Sri Lanka, but they are the ones now who loudly accuse Amnesty of siding with the LTTE and ignoring that organisation’s violations.

It is dusk now. I am surrounded by the noise of vehicles, each harshly bleating its aggressive presence. On both sides of the road there are weary soldiers every ten metres. They have stood here all day in this hot, dusty, noisy, polluted place, without even a break to pee. The coral and pink sunset is fading and the shadows of the trees begin to weave the darkness of night. In the midst of all this noise, I think of Sartre’s play, Men Without Shadows. In it the character Lucie asks the same question three times and it seems the only way to articulate the pain I feel myself: What is this unbearable silence? What is this unbearable silence? What is this unbearable silence?

For full set of Prasanna’s vignettes (parts 4 – 6) with sources, click here.