Image courtesy AP, via Gulf News

Potemkin City, with a difference: A Guide to Colombo for CHOGM 2013

Your Excellency, Distinguished Delegate, Dear Visitor,

Ayubowan! Vanakkam! Welcome to Colombo! 

You may have heard of how General Potemkin primed Crimea for the pleasure of Catherine the Great and her foreign ambassadors on their southern trip in 1787. Likewise, our own Potemkin, Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapakse, presidential sibling and Secretary Defence and Urban Development, has personally overseen the makeover of Colombo for your pleasure. And we do hope you will enjoy it.

Many Sri Lankans are referring to CHOGM as ‘Show-GM’ and Colombo has been meticulously prepared and curated to ensure the right image is conveyed. One hopes you will agree that the parts of the city you see are indeed looking beautiful. However there is much more to this beatification. After all, even the CHOGM signboards across the city say ‘Sri Lanka: A world within’, which you will be hard pressed to discover without a guide. So here is one.

On Arrival

At the airport, Your Excellency, Head of Government, will be picked up in one of the more than 50 brand new bullet-proof S400 Mercedes Benz cars imported for the summit. For the comfort of your delegation there is a large fleet of brand new Nissan Teanas, Toyota Corollas, 100 forty-one-seater luxury buses and 60 Land Rover Defender jeeps that have all been imported.

Naturally, the total costs of all this is unknown but runs into millions of dollars. While all vehicles will bear special CHOGM number plates they will not reveal to you that Sri Lanka’s public debt has risen alarmingly, to Rs. 3 trillion or nearly 80 per cent of GDP. At a recent meeting of the Sri Lanka Economic Association, economists were reportedly of the view that “the debt incurred was too much, at too high a cost and used excessively on low productive purposes.”

En route 

While you race into Colombo on the shiny new 26 kilometre expressway, you will not be told that it cost 1.8 billion rupees or 14 million US dollars per kilometre, amongst the most expensive in the world, and that it was mostly financed by a loan from China, whose terms are unknown. As you near the city you will come across neatly erected green-coloured screens along the expressway, these are not sound barriers but visual barriers, to ensure the sight of low-income settlements does not disturb you.

The main venues

The primary venue is named after Mahinda Rajapakse himself and to ensure ruthless efficiency it is run by the military; so no worries for you there. And just in front of the venue you can admire the newly redeveloped and spruced up lush green Viharamahadevi Park. However, you will not be told that like much else this was the work of the military not the municipality. And that the daily wage workers employed by the municipality to clean the park lost their jobs when the Navy took over. Like in every other instance of redevelopment none of the local residents or users of the park were meaningfully consulted.

Right in the front of the second main venue, the BMICH, is an imposing tall stone-sculpted standing Buddha. Indeed, you will notice a large number of Buddha statues all over the city. The official guide handed out to you will tell you about how Sri Lanka is the land of tolerance and ethnic harmony upholding the ideals of the Buddha but they will omit to tell you that there is a systematic attempt to ritually stamp the city and country’s landscape with Buddhist icons. The guide will almost certainly not tell you that Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is riding high with the blessings of the regime, and that religious minorities and Muslim and Christian places of worship and businesses in particular are the targets of systematic attacks.

In and around Colombo

In the city itself, residents and occupants on routes to be used by our distinguished guests have received letters requesting that we paint our exteriors and beautify our properties. Brand new fancy bus-shelters have been put up on routes to be taken by you, but the pictures in these shelters will not tell you that little has been invested in improving public transport though prices of tickets have just been raised significantly. For the record, in most other parts of Colombo there are in fact no bus shelters of any kind at all, usually just a little sign.

You will be pleased to see that the streets of Colombo are clean but much of this is thanks to a large force of mostly poor and elderly daily wage-workers employed on harsh terms by private contractors to whom solid waste management has been outsourced. Of course you will never meet these people, they are not invited to the CHOGM banquets. Again, no one will tell you that a clean Colombo does not mean there is no corruption. Forget about the corruption in high value land and property deals, even the custom-made brooches your distinguished first ladies are to be presented with are at the heart of an alleged 15 million rupee scandal.

During your stay you will meet many young and old Sri Lankans who will tell you Colombo is shining thanks to the Rajapakses. However, none of you (or even them for that matter) are likely to meet one of the 70,000 families who will be forcibly evicted and moved to northern and eastern parts of the city to ensure Colombo becomes a world-class garden city. They will certainly not meet Madonna (name changed), a domestic worker, who has lived in a low income settlement near Castle Street in Borella for more than 30 years but whose family is being forcibly moved into a much smaller flat in a high-rise located further away. She will not be able to tell you that rather than receive any compensation for her house that is to be demolished, she actually has to pay just over a million rupees to the state over the next 20 years to secure a title to this flat, starting with a down-payment of 50,000 rupees very soon, which she does not have. Nor will she able to tell your distinguished selves that the Urban Development Authority (UDA) did not even heed her community’s simple request to resettle them together in the high-rise blocks.

Many of you are likely to drop in or pass-by the renovated Dutch Hospital, the mini-stand of the old Race Course, and the Independence Square—initiatives the UDA loves to boast about. And for once, without anyone having to tell you, if you spend enough time to look carefully you will see yourself that though projected as ‘public’ spaces, these are in fact spaces where the less privileged come to labour and the well-heeled to slake their thirst for a life-style.

Perhaps you will also notice that many of these ‘public’ spaces are not gated but no one will tell you that internal frontiers, far from disappearing are only becoming more aestheticised. With low-income communities being pushed out, the city is heading towards becoming more segregated. And not everyone can actually even enter Colombo, like the hundreds of family members from the North of those disappeared who were prevented from coming to Colombo for a demonstration some time ago. Again, you may not meet any of them for they too are not invited to the CHOGM dinners and parties.

Things you should miss

The little of Colombo and Sri Lanka that will be on display for Your Excellency, Distinguished Delegate and Dear Visitor, fortunately does not include some sites and events of ugly importance. One such you should avoid is the Supreme Court in Hulfstdorp. But you may run into Chief Justice Mohan Peiris who until just a few months ago was serving as a loyal Attorney General before being suddenly elevated to Chief Justice after the unconstitutional impeachment of the former Chief Justice.

Make sure you don’t attend the discussion organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka on commonwealth values and the rule of law. Fortunately, the current and a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and a senior representative from International Bar Association won’t be there either as their visas, granted in August, have now been revoked.

Well, that’s that, almost. This guide would be incomplete if it did not recognise the glorious achievements of our military in transforming Colombo’s landscape. Under the leadership of President Rajapakse and his beloved brothers and family, they are being used to fundamentally restructure the Sri Lankan public and political sphere. Isn’t it wonderful that despite all the accusations of egregious brutalisation during and after the war they are now a force for extensive beautification? This is just one of the many steps on a uniquely Sri Lankan path to post-war reconciliation, about which we hope you will try and learn more.

‘Imagine, explore and discover the Island of endless opportunity.’