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writing for godot

Letter from Colombo, Sri Lanka, 26 April 2019

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Written by Judy Pasqualge   
Friday, 26 April 2019 13:15

One morning, about three weeks ago, we were at one of Colombo's older indoor malls, a five-story building, with cinemas at the top, various stores and a food court in the basement. I can hardly remember the days before the end of the civil war in 2009, when the mall would usually be almost empty. Entrance to the mall, as everywhere, required a check by security guards. It was easy to get used to this, as it was necessary in the face of decades of suicide bombings, then by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had many operatives in the city.

In those days, most people went home right after work, and stayed there. Many people did not want to drive around as the streets were empty and checkpoints were everywhere. There were few buses, and almost no pedestrians. We used to walk in the evening anyway, in one of the high security zones of the city, and were perfectly safe, as the omnipresent security forces (special police force, army, navy) were truly professionals: they were alert, spot on using the training they'd received, and knew that we were not the kind of people they were looking for. They did not acknowledge us, but neither party had any fear of the other. The regular police also had checkpoints, and they were not so professional, as occasionally late at night one of them might be drinking alcohol ‒ still, they were on the frontline of stopping any passing vehicle and doing a search, never knowing if a guilty party might open fire or blow him/herself up. In general, I am a critic of various aspects of the police and armed forces, but there was a necessity for the security, and there was a tragic aspect of so many and such young lives being at risk every day.

After the war ended, and especially after a few years had gone by, the checkpoints were one by one removed, and the police took over much, not all, of the visible security presence. More of them left their machine guns in the station, until guns were not carried at all. People started to go out at night again, places stayed open, there was an evident sense of freedom ‒ after so many decades. At the same time, the professionalism of the forces and police started to deteriorate: too often eyes were fixed on passing women, or several might discuss something together. This was matched by a new and too often lack of restraint by groups of drunk men at night, making the streets unsafe in another way. There arose a different sense of impunity, but, still, day and night activities increased by the year.

This occurred even as the age-old fight between the two main political parties escalated into a dangerous end game-like atmosphere, with little being done except for personal or party gain. The current Parliament speaker and prime minister are in the party that is closest to Washington (both Democrat and Republican), to the British Conservative Party, and to the West in general (the UNP, United National Party).

The current opposition is dominated by a large faction of the more nonaligned and nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP/SLPP, of Mahinda Rajapaksa), which won the war (and is under ongoing international scrutiny regarding war crimes), held government until 2015, and had a reputation for targetting dissenters, and letting a hardcore majority Sinhala element run out of control against Muslims and Christians.

President Maithripala Sirisena (an SLFP cabinet minister) was elected in 2015 after switching to the UNP side. He then switched back to the Rajapaksa side, which culminated in the constitutional coup attempt of October 2018. It was only the judicial system, with popular resistance, that prevented an illegal takeover by the Rajapaksas.

Advance to Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019. It took until early Sunday afternoon for the country to realise that three churches and three hotels had been bombed. That afternoon, as the hunt was on for suspects, many people made a dash to the local grocery store to stock up. Check-out lines were long and stretched to the back of the store, and perhaps one very notable aspect of this, different than some decades ago, was that in addition to the essentials, many people were tossing whole handfuls of packets of cookies and containers of ice cream into their shopping carts. The health problem epidemic of such noncommunicable diseases as diabetes and high cholesterol was certainly on display on the 21st ‒ and so too the link between such junk food and an immediate sense of comfort. Soon no more people were admitted to the store, for curfew had been declared some hours earlier than first announced, and everyone hurried home.

The first day or two were maybe days of shock, as the news came in of the extent of death and destruction. This was followed by a day of utter exhaustion, but then soon the anger started to rise, when it was discovered that there had been some, yet not exactly known, early warnings about the planned attacks. First, several Members of Parliament (MPs) stated that they had heard the warning before the 21st. Then it was reported that India had given several warnings, including the night before and morning of the attack, and then that the US had warned the government (the ambassador later denied this).

On the 21st the situation was complicated by the president being out of the country, with seemingly no one left in charge, and no clarity as to who should take immediate action.

The first spin by the government suggested that the warning had been passed on to various security divisions: the heads of MP security details, those handling foreign missions, other dignitaries, and the like. Still, both President Sirisena and PM Ranil Wickremasinghe insisted that they had not received the warning.

And, early on, a scenario of government/security/intelligence service ineptness did seem in a way plausible ‒ especially since any MP, for example, could have easily assumed that all others must also know. However, in light of the many warnings, people began to doubt that the president and prime minister are telling the truth, and there seem to be two dominant possible scenarios in the public mind:

1. The prime minister and his party did indeed know, but used the catastrophe to cement their rule, justifying new and stringent emergency regulations, with support of certain international backers.

2. Given the divisions within the forces and intelligence services between sections supporting the two main parties, those high-ups supporting a return of the Rajapaksas did keep the information away from the president and prime minister.

Thus, either way, some people believe that there was a general underhanded and deliberate use of the threat scenario for the purposes of political gain. And people are very angry and getting more so.

What can one say about a political situation in which a government and major opposition group had prior knowledge of possible, even likely, impending disaster and refused to act, resulting in the death of hundreds and grave consequences to their families and the country in general?

Watching the takes of the foreign media, I have a few comments to make.

1. The focus on the devastation of the two Catholic/one Evangelical churches, over that of the hotels, and thus a focus on a purely religious targetting, is out of balance, irrespective of a likely link to global fundamentalist Islamists. This targetting of Christians is indeed part of a global trend, as is the targetting of Muslims. There also seems to be an attempt to underestimate the number of foreigners killed.

However, the consequences of hitting the hotels, outside of death and injury, loom large. The small area that contains the three hotels also has about five other major top-end ones, and is near to the Presidential Secretariat, the prime minister's residence, the Central Bank, a long seaside stretch of bare land where people walk and jog, the US embassy and American Center, and the Indian embassy. A fourth hotel, very nearby (the Indian Tata-owned Taj Samudra), was also in the plan, but the device malfunctioned.

While it is not possible to comment on the selection of the four hotels, a few notes might be of interest. The Cinnamon Grand is owned by the John Keels conglomerate, which also owns one of the two chains of grocery stores, and a wide range of other businesses. The hotel was an early high-end one, going under the name of the Hotel Lanka Oberoi. During the dark days of the civil war from the 1980s, and the as dark days in the late 1980s of the JVP insurgency, the hotel's bar/club was one place to go.

The Shangri-La is a very new addition, only recently opening, and run by that chain out of Hong Kong. It is seen as the top of the line in Colombo, the new standard to follow, and, being new, many people started to go to try out the restaurants and bars ‒ including the Sunday brunch.

The Kingsbury (of the local Hayley's company) used to be the Hotel Intercontinental, one of the first such hotels in Colombo and a new standard at one time, and was a hot spot in the 1970s and 1980s.

In general, such hotels tend to draw politicos of various parties, sometimes their sons, and body guards. In the past, there have been too many incidents of drunk and abusive behaviour by some of them, even with weapons being drawn. Because of this, some people avoided such places at night.

Now, that area is under lockdown, with a scare on the 25th at the Central Bank that sent employees out onto the street and home early. And, today, a Friday, a walk up Galle Road to near the area shows much less traffic, although people are going out to stock up again; the forces, as all over the country, are out in large numbers, checking pedestrians, vehicles, with undercover forces on the watch every few blocks, and armed security/police stand in front of schools, hospitals, hotels and places of worship ‒ in short, any place that people might gather. There is an ongoing nationwide hunt for individuals and specific vehicles, with more attacks likely planned.

All people are being checked before entering a hospital. Schools have been closed all week, with the planned opening on the 29th just postponed until 6 May. Today there will be no Friday prayers at mosques, no church services this weekend, and cultural events have been cancelled. Britain seems to be the only country that has warned its nationals to not come to Sri Lanka, except for essential matters.

And a truly amazing consequence: construction work has stopped on the numerous new high-rise luxury apartment cum shopping mall complexes. Perhaps this is the perfect symbol of the heightened danger that does actually exist.

In short, Sri Lanka has just taken a huge economic hit, and one that will last for a long time. A country that only in 2018 was chosen as the place to visit (by Lonely Planet) is now off limits ‒ by actions done in the space of a few hours. It is shocking.

2. While it is true that there may arise dire consequences for minorities such as Muslims and foreigners ‒ who I have seen termed as 'most at risk' ‒ one must not lose sight of the consequences now facing everyone. What a tragedy to see emergency law back in force ‒ which, if history is any guide, will be misapplied to cover dissent, or as a cover for such illegal activities as blackmail, ransom, hostage taking, rape, etc. Many people have lost out on pay, and some businesses have not yet reopened; some exporters cannot meet their shipping deadlines.

There is thus a need for foreign media to be much more careful in the selection of the 'experts' interviewed. This may be more important than it seems. In viewing CNN, Al Jazeera, France 24 and the BBC, the choices have been of spotty quality. Without getting specific (and not a comprehensive view either), there have been commentators of shady backgrounds, or affiliated with foreign governments, or affiliated with an outright Republican establishment, or with a Democratic one, or local people who fall too much on one side of the political fight here. Viewer beware.

And for the US public, it is well to recognise that there is a large strand of opinion here, held and played by several political factions, that links Sunday's events with a US aim to control the government, maintain and increase access to resources, and to gain permanent naval access to ports. This is in the context of China's role in a new port on the southern coast, and Sri Lanka's participation in various joint naval exercises, including with the US. This line points to the experience of Syria: the US actively supported opposition to that government, such opposition including (and taken over by) fundamentalist Islamists. Thus some people believe that the US would rather see Sri Lanka in ruins than to allow any other country to hold sway.

This view is not without some basis, as US governments ‒ whether Democratic or Republican ‒ essentially follow the same policy in Sri Lanka. Friendly local political parties are assisted, and these are ones that support policies that in the US are being fought so urgently. These are the austerity measures insisted on by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), which, among other things, urge cutting of funds for education and health care; the privatisation of water; the weakening of labour laws; regressive taxation; and the investment of public pension funds in a nontransparent stock market.

I'll end here with a definition of the failed state. As noted by Noam Chomsky, there are three criteria: a government that cannot protect its citizens; a country and/or its leaders that act as if above domestic or international law; and a hollowing out of democracy, such that institutions no longer work to ensure democracy (Failed States, 2006).

Perhaps you can imagine Sri Lanka better now, for both it and the US now meet all three criteria.

Thus, dear reader, you might try, in any discussion about the events in Sri Lanka, to just refuse to elevate any one group to higher victim status, and to hold your representatives and candidates to a standard that applies to all of us.

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