Recently I’ve begun to notice once more a particular sort of post cropping up on my Facebook timeline, most often posted, “liked”, or shared by one of my FB friends. Almost all of these posts are by Sri Lankan Muslims (most of my Muslim friends are Sri Lankan); almost, I say, because the rest are by non-Muslim social workers or activists who are generally anyway more interested in this particular topic than most. The event that seems to have sparked this flurry of posts is the ongoing escalation of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.
The posts are almost exclusively of a religious bent, lamenting the fate of Palestinian Muslims being brutally attacked (or ignored) by non-Muslims and calling on God to protect these people in particular, and Muslims all over the world in general. Earlier this year, and at various times last year, there was a storm of similar posts about Muslims in Syria. Of course, there were also posts about Aluthgama, but that is hardly something unusual since it was an event right here in Sri Lanka.
Now, I’m not going to get into the circumstances of what’s happening in Palestine and Syria; who is right or wrong, the three dead Israeli children, the fact that a significant minority of Palestinians are Christian, or that a lot of the killing being done in Syria is in fact by Muslims themselves. I have my own views on both conflicts (as do most of the people posting), but they are irrelevant to this post. One thing that is clear is that none of us really know much about what’s going on over there and aren’t really interested. So why are my Muslim friends posting about it?
A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual for Muslims in Colombo and elsewhere in Sri Lanka to be out on the streets in protest, or picketing a western embassy, whenever the US invaded Iraq or Afghanistan or bombed Libya or something like that. This has completely stopped of late, which is understandable given the threat Muslims face right here in the country; Sri Lankan Muslims no longer feel safe enough to show solidarity with other Muslims. Clearly, however, that isn’t true on the internet, and Sri Lankan Muslims feel more at ease giving their opinions and protesting certain things without the actual physical danger they would face on the street from nutjobs like the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS).
Clearly, Sri Lankan Muslims don’t like the fact that other Muslims are being harmed. But they are more incensed by the fact that these people being endangered are Muslim than that they are Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, or whatever. We don’t see the same level of outrage when Muslims like Saddam Hussein kill Kuwaiti Muslims, or when Hizbollah or Islamic Jihad kill Israeli children, or when the Saudis execute Sri Lankan Muslims. Clearly, Sri Lankan Muslims identify with other Muslims worldwide, but mostly when they are in conflict with, or under attack by, non-Muslims.
So I think it is safe to say that Sri Lankan Muslims are identifying with the Muslimness of those people rather than the circumstances they find themselves in. I find this a bit annoying because it reminds me of the knee-jerk reactions of Tamils in Toronto and London who allowed their Tamilness to overrule other considerations. Sri Lankan Tamils in the diaspora certainly felt more Tamil than Canadian or British, and that led to their protests about what was happening in Sri Lanka. So do Muslims feel the same? Do they identify with a global Islam that has a stronger identity than that of being Sri Lankan? Certainly, Sri Lankan Christians (I mention them simply because they are the only other Sri Lankan ethnicity with a global presence) don’t view conflicts around the world through a religious lens or, if they do, identify enough with those warring parties to take any action. There were no Christian protests about the Yugoslavian conflict, or various wars in Africa. You don’t see Christian protests outside Arab embassies when an Islamic terror group targets a western (Christian) country.
Now, I want to ask my Muslim friends whether you realize that what you are doing is setting yourselves apart in the eyes of other Sri Lankans; it is making us feel as if you are more interested in what is happening on the other side of the world than what is happening right here; that you are immersed insomething the rest of Sri Lanka is not. At a time when it is important for Sri Lankan Muslims to reinforce their Sri Lankanness, and avoid being labelled outsiders, is this what you should be doing? Or do you feel that your solidarity with Muslims worldwide is more important, more identifying, than your Sri Lankanness? I’m not making a judgement here or suggesting what you are doing is right or wrong; I am simply looking for answers. I hope to hear from you soon. Thanks for reading.
The Sunday Times quotes the Prisons Department spokesman as saying that a new title is being sought to replace that of “hangman” as the negative connotations of the current title of the post is putting off applicants for the vacant spot. I have helpfully made up a list of possible designations for this job; feel free to add to it:
Life Terminations Officer
Permanent Citizenship Revocation Manager
Life Executive Officer, Prisons Department
Director of Lifestyle Suppression
Chief Operations Officer, Executions & Terminations
Terminal Penalties Officer
And my personal favourite: Director of the Division of Ultimate Solutions
You said I could preach Ahimsa after the war was over.
So I did as you asked.
I killed them all
For your Dharmishta Society.
Where is the Ahimsa
The One Plate Project is an initiative by Yamu and ad agency JWT to create a uniquely Sri Lankan practice online. During most religious and cultural celebrations such as the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, Ramazan, Thai Pongal, and Christmas, people of all ethnicities look forward to the celebrations, regardless of whether that particular festival is one relevant to one’s community or not. And there’s one simple irreligious reason for that — Sri Lankans love food. As a Christian Burgher, I look forward to Avurudhu and Ramazan almost as much as I do to Christmas because I know there’s going to be a load of great Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim food coming my way from the neighbours.
In multi-ethnic neighbourhoods — mostly in Sri Lanka’s bigger cities, it is considered a common — and neighbourly — practice to send your neighbours — especially those from other communities — a plate of food if you’re celebrating something. So at Ramazan, some biryani and wattalappam is pretty much guaranteed; sweets and milk rice will be loaded onto a plate for Avurudhu; and at Christmas, thick wedges of breudher are piled onto plates and dispatched to the neighbours. Everyone gets to enjoy everyone else’s party. What makes this doubly cool is the fact that no one wants to return an empty plate to its owner, so usually there’s a frantic scramble to find something tasty to fill that plate for its return journey.
This is precisely the experience the One Plate Project replicates in a virtual neighbourhood. Hosted on Anything.lk this Avurudhu, the project allows you the chance to buy a plate of food — ideally one belonging to your community — and have it delivered with a personal greeting to a random person from another community. In return, you yourself will receive a surprise plate of food from some other neighbourly stranger off the net. How it works is that one selects one of four plates, each belonging to one of the four major ethnic communities of Sri Lanka — Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, and Burgher — and pay for it. All plates are priced the same at Rs 500. That’s it. Your address will be saved on the site, and on delivery day you’ll receive something in return.
The project was launched by Yamu and JWT this New Year, and is planned to run throughout all the major festivals for a full year, culminating next year with the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. To simplify matters, the organisers have decided to stick to just sweets for now which are less perishable and therefore easier to deliver. They have also restricted the project to Colombo for now, but if all goes well we’re likely to see both the menu and the areas expand rapidly over the next year. For now, the Sinhalese plate consists of aasme, konde kevum, kokis, and thala karali; the Tamil plate has jelebi, rava laddu, sweet murukku, and boondi; the Muslim plate is actually a bowl of legendary watalappam; and the Burgher plate gives you the equally famous breudher.
Speaking to me, Indi Samarajeeva, one of the owners of Yamu, said that the “One Plate [Project] is an experiment to see if online food sharing can help bridge divides between communities. Sri Lankans traditionally share food at holidays with their neighbors. One Plate is an attempt to extend that behavior online.” At a time when Sri Lanka has been experiencing a new wave of ethnic tension, Indi went on to say, “We hope that people will take the chance to do something concrete to promote fraternity and goodwill among all the communities of Sri Lanka.”
I think every generation faces its own particular challenges; but the greatest and most defining ones are those of morality and courage. That moment, if missed, condemns that generation — and often many that follow — to a world far more unpleasant and evil than we would wish it to be. For many in the free world of the late 1930s, that moment came with the invasion of Poland and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It was a moment when my grandfather’s generation had to decide if they would simply stand on the sidelines or go out and fight someone else’s cause. Fortunately for them, the choice was easy; their respective governments took the right fork, and millions of young men — my grandfather included — went out into the deserts, the jungles, and across the seas to ensure that tyranny and racism would not shape our world. For 1960s America, the moment of destiny was in fact a place — Vietnam — and a moral choice. America made its decision, albeit a little late for millions of Vietnamese.
But when that hour of destiny arrived thirty years ago in Sri Lanka, our parents’ generation failed us. For decades, they had watched as extremist rhetoric leveled at the Tamil community gave way to physical violence. They stood by as our constitution was changed to remove any protection the minorities had a right to under law. They were silent when the nation’s leadership was silent on the racism and hatred that was all around them. They did nothing when their elected politicians in fact helped instigate the violence that climaxed in the orgy of assault, murder, rape, and destruction now known as Black July. For thirty years we have wondered how our parents could have been so docile, so shortsighted, so wrong in their choices. We have watched our country torn apart by suicide bombers and child soldiers, by tanks and artillery. We have watched a hundred thousand die, because our parents didn’t say “stop!”
Thirty years later, the clock is back at five minutes to midnight; racists are calling for violence, for this country to be only for Sinhalese Buddhists. They are calling for a tiny minority to change their lifestyles or leave; they are calling for their right to worship to be curbed. And they are threatening violence if their demands are not met. Our government is at best silent; at worst in collusion. Our police force is standing by while Muslims are attacked. There are no arrests. There is no condemnation. There is no justice.
The last time this happened, I was eleven years old; an uncomprehending child. I grew up to wonder why my father who could ride a motorcycle through a wall of fire to get me home that July, hadn’t been able to stop what was done to the Tamils and to my country. Was he scared? Didn’t he care? I ask the same questions from myself today. Why am I doing nothing as my country heads towards the flames again. I ask it of my friends — especially the Buddhists — my colleagues, my girlfriend. None of you are racists, I think. None of you believe that Muslims must be persecuted and harassed. Why are you not speaking out? Why are you not protesting? What will it take? Or is there nothing that will drive us out of our homes and on to the streets to brave the thugs and the tear gas, the water cannon and the bullets? Have we no fucking shame?
I feel ashamed right now; ashamed of my government; ashamed of my friends; ashamed of my country. More than anything, I am ashamed of myself. I have never felt this way about my country, and I never thought I would, but I feel it now. And I hate feeling this way. In the worst of the war, I told myself that it wasn’t my fault; that I hadn’t chosen this war to fight. But this is now. This is me. This is us. This is our country and our moment of destiny is here. Why are we doing nothing?
Hey! Hey! Hey!
I don’t like walking around this old and empty house.
So hold my hand, I’ll walk with you my dear
The stairs creak as I sleep,
it’s keeping me awake
It’s the house telling you to close your eyes
Some days I can’t even dress myself.
It’s killing me to see you this way.
‘Cause though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore.
Hey! Hey! Hey!
There’s an old voice in my head
that’s holding me back
Well tell her that I miss our little talks.
Soon it will all be over, buried with our past
We used to play outside when we were young
and full of life and full of love.
Some days I feel like I’m wrong when I am right.
Your mind is playing tricks on you my dear.
‘Cause though the truth may vary
This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore
Don’t listen to a word I say
The screams all sound the same.
Though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore
You’re gone, gone, gone away,
I watched you disappear.
All that’s left is a ghost of you.
Now we’re torn, torn, torn apart,
there’s nothing we can do,
Just let me go, we’ll meet again soon.
Now wait, wait, wait for me, please hang around
I’ll see you when I fall asleep.
Don’t listen to a word I say
The screams all sound the same.
Though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore
Don’t listen to a word I say
The screams all sound the same.
Though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore
Unfortunately, much of history is written by journalists. And Gota’s War is no different. If you’re looking for a military history of Sri Lanka’s war, this is not the book for you. In fact, that book has yet to be written. CA Chandraprema looks at the conflict through the lens of the media — the incidents and events that drew the newspaperman’s eye; albeit a rather right-of-centre Sinhalese nationalist newspaperman. Make no mistake, this is an important book; if for no other reason than that it is the first since the end of the war to cover the conflict in its entirety.
Chandraprema’s use of Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s truncated name in the title, and the description, The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, is slightly misleading, giving the impression that the book is simply about the Defense Secretary’s role in the final few years of the war. In fact, what Chandraprema does is to use Gotabhaya as both a counterpoint and a parallel to the narrative, particularly in the early stages of the war, when Gotabhaya was a young SL Army officer. Gota’s War is both history and biography, but it is not a natural coupling, and Chandraprema’s attempt to do both in one piece, cripples the scope of the book as a historical work.
In order to keep Gotabhaya central to the narrative, Chandraprema is forced to keep the trench-level view of the war narrow, while looking at some events – the JVP uprisings, the political infighting between the Rajapakses and their opponents – with a detail that is superfluous to the war against the Tamil separatists. Naturally, because of this, the early military confrontations between the Armed Forces and the separatists is confined to descriptions of operations carried out by the Gajaba Regiment, the unit Gotabhaya served most of his military career with. Similarly, this focus on Gotabhaya naturally prevents him examining some of the other influential characters that a true history should have. This is particularly clear in the almost non-existence of Gen Sarath Fonseka in Gota’s War. When he does make a rare appearance, he is depicted, at best, to be a rather passive figure and, often, as a hindrance to the dynamic and practical defense secretary. Fonseka, in Chandraprema’s view, is a Montgomery to Gotabhaya’s Patton, plodding and rigid, petty and selfish. In this, the author has done both Fonseka and his book a great disservice, and is akin to writing the history of the Second World War and leaving out Eisenhower or MacArthur. Similarly, many of the other military officers examined – senior to Gotabhaya the soldier and subordinate to Gotabhaya the defense secretary – are largely those who had the most influence on him. While this is acceptable in a biography, it is certainly not in a history.
The converse of this is that Gotabhaya often disappears from the narrative for long periods, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when his character isn’t central to events. We have very little indication of Gotabhaya’s personality, or the motivations that drove him; almost nothing of Gotabhaya Rajapakse the man; beyond the most superficial of sketches. This too is a deep flaw in Chandraprema’s book. At the end of Gota’s War, we know hardly more of the defense secretary than we knew at the beginning.
Chandraprema has also come under criticism, both from within the SL Army and without, for playing favourites in his book; for focusing on the feats of certain military officers, unfairly criticizing others, and completely ignoring still others. I will not dwell on this because every author has his own slant and viewpoint, and is entitled to it. To examine motive would be to review CA Chandraprema rather than his writing, and that is not the point of this article. I have mentioned the treatment of Fonseka simply because it is so glaring and obvious a failing.
One thing Chandraprema can be certainly complimented on is his writing style. Gota’s War is 504 pages long, and looks rather daunting when first picked up. However, it is very readable even if you’re not a history buff. The prose is smooth and conversational, the chapters no more than half a dozen pages in length, as fast paced as a novel, and devoid of the stuffiness, cliché, and archaic language many Sri Lankan authors of histories and memoirs feel obliged to write in. Chandraprema even manages to infuse a certain amount of sardonic humour to his writing. The book is solidly bound, and the cover is attractive, if rather unimaginative. The book could do with some better maps, however, in place of the hand-drawn ones at the back, which give no indication of the frontlines, the Tiger- and government-held areas, or the direction of offensives described by Chandraprema. Continue reading
The eyes stared expressionlessly back at me from the fifteen small pictures, some clear, and some blurred; reflections that only hinted at the men behind those eyes. But sharp or soft, they all looked so innocuous, so devoid of any indication of what they had once seen. So normal. To look into those fifteen pairs of eyes, to read their names on the Wall that held thousands of similar names, was to gain no hint of the impossible acts of bravery that their owners had committed. Acts that would now see them join the eight who had gone before. Twenty-three names for twenty-three men. Twenty-three individual acts of supreme courage, selected out of twenty-eight years of war. The faces were tucked away in the second page of the Sunday Times, and I stared back at them for awhile before reading the short paragraph beneath each. The words were trite, cliched, dry; unable to capture the struggle of courage over fear that must have dominated each man’s last moments; the pain, the heat. And of course, that ultimate singularity, as they stepped forward and died. Alone. That solitude was also what singled them out, along with their courage, for none of them had done what they did as part of a whole, or at the order of someone else. They had each decided alone to do what they did, each for his own reasons.
At this year’s commemoration of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government decided to award the Parama Weera Vibushanaya, Sri Lanka’s highest award for bravery (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross and the American Medal of Honour) to fifteen members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces for courage displayed in combat and, almost without exception, conducted in the last two years of the war. Fifteen may not seem like a huge number, but to give you an idea of its significance, consider that since the PWV was established in 1981, it had been awarded only eight times in the twenty-one years that preceded the Cease-Fire Agreement between the GoSL and the Tigers. Therefore, for it to be awarded over a dozen times in two years is an indication of the intensity of the fighting after the CFA collapsed, and the sacrifices needed to destroy the Tigers; particularly in the last year of combat.
The Presidential Proclamation of 1981 that brought the PWV into effect states that the medal is to be awarded for … individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to his own life and security with the objective of safeguarding thereby, the lives of his comrades or facilitating the operational aim of his force.
The twenty-three recipients of the PWV are all men and, with few exceptions, young. These are not generals or admirals. They didn’t command thousands of subordinates, or carry out great acts of strategy that would be recorded in military textbooks. Usually, they were in charge of less than a dozen men. Sometimes, not even that; being the youngest and most junior soldiers in their units. Only eleven of them, less than half their number, were officers. Twenty of them were soldiers. Two were sailors. And one an airman. Twenty-one were Sinhalese, one a Moor, and one a Tamil. And all of them are dead. In the eighteen years since the PWV was first awarded in 1991, not a single one of its recipients has ever lived to feel that medal’s weight on his chest or test the military code that requires even the Chief of the Defense Staff to salute, without regard to rank, the wearer of that 32-mm wide crimson ribbon. Some died leading attacks that would drive the enemy back to ultimate defeat; but many died in desperate rearguard actions to ensure that their comrades and friends retreated to safety; and at least one to save the life of a politician. As many of them died to save someone as those who died whilst killing the enemy. Continue reading
A couple of weekends ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I was driving past the Apollo Hospital on the way to the supermarket and was approaching the pedestrian crossing opposite the hospital. Traffic was moderate for Colombo, and I’m doing around 30-kmph. A pedestrian gallops across the crossing in the usual I’m-Gonna-Cross-Here-So-Stop-You-Bastards stance necessary for using such crossings in Sri Lanka — arm, umbrella, or newspaper held up to catch attention, steely determined look firmly on face, brisk pace, etc. Elvitigala Road has three lanes in each direction with a center island, and I was in the inside lane, alongside the island, driving towards Kirillapone. I always try and stop for pedestrians on crossings and so I followed procedure and slowed to a stop.
The guy crosses in front of me, and as soon as he’s clear I start to roll. Just then, I notice a young woman about to step on to the crossing, three lanes away. She’s going to take half a minute to get to me, and I’m already on the crossing, so I just keep going. She crosses unhindered behind me and goes merrily on her way. So do I — or so I think.
I’ve barely gone fifty metres when a cop appears from beneath a shady tree and crosses two lanes of traffic, making cars brake and swerve, to flag me down. Puzzled, I steer across the centre and outside lanes to the pavement. Cop leans in on the passenger side and asks me for my licence. I ask him what the problem (actually, what his problem) is. He tells me that I did the right thing in letting the male pedestrian cross, but that I had violated the road rules by driving on before the woman had crossed.
I look at him in disbelief and point out that I didn’t hinder the pedestrian in anyway and that she had crossed without any problem. He says that this is not the point, and that it’s a violation he has to book me for. Now the cop speaking to me is the most junior of three, the other two — a sergeant and a sub-inspector — are still under the shady tree, watching disinterestedly.
Junior breaks off his conversation with me to flag down two more vehicles, clearly for the same offense as mine. While I wait for his return I see random pedestrians crossing the road without the aid of any crossing, dodging between vehicles, unencumbered by the presence of the guardians of the law. A hundred metres further on is the Park Road intersection, and I watch a bus run through the red light followed by a trishaw and a motorcycle that both do U-turns and head back past the hospital. The law enforcement trio cheerfully stop a van for driving across the pedestrian crossing.
Junior comes back to my car and demands my licence once more. I ask him if he expected me to have waited while every pedestrian who strolls up to the crossing has crossed, since it isn’t a light-controlled crossing. Junior shrugs and holds out his hand for the licence. I hand it over, pointing to the intersection and the fact that a bus is cutting across three lanes of traffic to turn onto Park Road, through a red light, of course. Junior feigns interest and squints into the distance. Then he tells me that he’s there to enforce the law where he is and not where he isn’t. I ask him why he doesn’t then position himself where dangerous offenses are being committed and not where minor violations are easy to detect. I suggest that maybe the shady tree is the determining factor, and he walks off to deliver my licence to the sarge. When he returns with the charge sheet I ask him if he isn’t ashamed of himself and the disgrace he brings to his uniform. I say it loud enough to see the sub-inspector’s jaw tighten. Clearly annoyed but unsure if my lecture is actually a violation, Junior drops the charge sheet onto my passenger seat and walks off to continue fighting crime. Continue reading
So on my sixth trip down the E01, they nailed me for speeding. It was actually a bit of a relief. Like a serial killer giving up to the inevitable. And I have been speeding. Probably still will. The relief came from finally knowing how they were going to catch me. I had been told they were installing speed detecting cameras, and on my last trip down south, I even saw cops standing by the road, mostly under overpasses, aiming speed guns at me. If they were going to stop me, they would have, since I was doing variously 130kmph, 140kmph, and 150kmph when I saw them. Obviously, they saw me first. And let me go.
Mostly, I wondered how exactly they were going to stop me. Flagging me down seemed impossibly dangerous, and I didn’t think they were going to give chase. I thought I was going too fast for them to visually read my plates and radio ahead, and I doubted that they had the technology to take a high-speed photograph and upload it to cops at the exits. In the end, it proved to be a bit of both the latter two.
My first time on the E01, I stuck to the speed limit for a full ten minutes, while cars overtook me. Then I got up to 140kmph and stayed there as long as I could, except when traffic or the sight of cops slowed me down. After several trips with nothing happening to stop me speeding, I realised I was on average faster than everyone else; I overtook everything placed before me, and nothing overtook me. Going down to Unawatuna this weekend, I took the usual precautions and nothing happened. Again. Coming back, traffic was moderately heavy, and I just kept my foot planted, doing the trip in 47 minutes. My slowest is 53 minutes, my fastest 38.
When I got to the Kottawa exit last evening, I saw a cop checking number plates in front of me. I’d seen this before, but not noticed anyone being charged. This time he gave me the good new: 128kmph at the 27th mile post. Aside from that being an embarrassingly low speed to be copped for speeding (I’ve been nailed for doing 140 on Baseline Road), I wondered where the Hell the 27th mile post was. I had slowed down on spotting a parked patrol car, and hadn’t seen a speed gun, but I guess that was it.
While I was waiting my turn to have my fine sheet filled out, other offenders unrepentantly inquired from each other what speeds they had each been clocked at. 138kmph was the winner amongst the half-dozen there, the champ unjustifiably proud. I sneered. I had passed him close to the Horana exit like he was standing still.
That’s where I found out how they nailed me. The police radio kept crackling and a voice would say something like, “Vehicle HA-1242, 28th milepost, 130kmph, silver car.” The cops at the exit would then write this down. Obviously, this was happening at all the exits north of the 28th mile post. I wondered what would happen if I challenged the charge. I’m guessing that they have some sort of camera attached to the speed gun — ‘cos no way they can read a number plate going by at that speed — and this picture would be produced in court if needed.
One improvement over the old system of cops flagging you down for these violations, is you get charged at the point of exit; so I only needed to go back to Kottawa to pick up my license, and not Aluthgama or somewhere like it was before. The fine’s a thousand rupees plus a hundred-rupee stamp. I sent a three-wheel driver today with the fine to the post office, and then to Kottawa to collect my licence. He charged me 1,500 bucks. So, 2,600 all told.
Also saw an Army patrol crossing the expressway while I was doing 150kmph. I saw them three seconds before I passed them. Luckily they were still in the oncoming lanes. In my rearview mirror I glimpsed them vault the center barrier. They were carrying a small sign about a foot in diameter which said “STOP”. Probably Vijayabahu Regiment. They always were idiots.