I’ve been to Sri Lanka once – wandering excitedly between Colombo, breathless with tales of war, and Kandy, heavy with an almost eerie silence punctuated only by prayers from the stunning Temple Of The Tooth. Now, with the promise of peace ahead, i’m looking forward to a story that’s completely different from the following, which was written and published in April 2004. Will things change?
BEING mistaken for a terrorist can be rather disconcerting. Especially when the distinctly jumpy man accusing you of plotting to kill thousands looks like he’s going to drop all his possessions and run for his life if you do so much as glance at him sternly. “You can’t trust anyone here,” he says, fidgeting with his beer in a quietly smoky bar. “There’s too much at stake.”
Call him what you want: a conspiracy theorist, a melodramatic worrier, even a kook. Then, take a good look at his country — its past, its present and the projections for its future — and you’ll understand why he, and many other Sri Lankans, think the way they do. The troubled island has seen two decades of gut-wrenching ethnic conflict, after all. Two decades that have crippled its people, both financially and emotionally, with scars that will require more than just economic resurgence for healing. And even today, in spite of two years of apprehensive peace, thanks to a cease-fire agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government, things are still far from “normal” in the island, ironically shaped like a just-shed tear.
Colombo by night gives every indication of being a troubled city in spite of its well-advertised glitzy casinos, raucous karaoke bars and swinging nightclubs. As darkness falls, the city’s veins are cordoned off and buses sinisterly parked across them to supplement rows of barricades. Well-armed policemen patrol these quiet and largely deserted roads on the lookout for trouble. “If they see you doing anything suspicious, they take you to the Fourth Floor,” says a Sri Lankan woman, whose cousin was taken there for questioning because he was caught taking touristy photographs of the harbour. The “dreaded Fourth Floor”, of the country’s police headquarters houses its investigation wing and apparently terrifies Colombo because, as one Sri Lankan says, “a number of people taken in for questioning there never come out”.
On a drive through the city, citizens casually point out sites of recent bomb blasts like they are a part of the scenery — along with the majestic line up of luxurious, largely under-occupied hotels along the Galle Face Road; the vulnerable, bustling market areas and the places of worship, crammed with fervently praying Sri Lankans watched over by beatific images of the Buddha.
In small-town Kandy, famous for its heavily-guarded Temple of the Tooth — one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the country (attacked by the LTTE in 1998) — the days are crammed with noisily appreciative floods of blonde tourists. But the nights are similar to Colombo’s: Silent roads, occasional nervous pedestrians, an expectant lull in the air. Almost as though the entire city is expecting bad news. “Tourists who come here say it’s like a cemetery,” shrugs one of the town’s many tour guides.
It’s in Kandy that Kelum Chamara Warnakulasuriya, owner of Loco Lanka Tours, admits that Sri Lankans don’t like being asked too many questions — once he’s sure that no one in the Royal Pub, attached to the beautifully restored more-than-a-century-old Queens’ Hotel, is a well-disguised spy for the LTTE.
“You ask a Sri Lankan about our past, he’ll tell you. But if you ask him about the present, he’ll just keep leading you away from the truth. We have many secrets that we have to keep,” he says, adding, “I live in a village where there are two lakes, which supply Kandy with its drinking water. If someone puts cyanide in the water, boom. there’ll be hundreds of people dead.” Kelum adds. “We don’t trust you because we can’t trust anyone. Your guides won’t tell you much. To tourists, we narrate history, but keep the present to ourselves. There are many places not shown. Many stories not told.”
There are also many potential destinations not seen. The north of Sri Lanka, which is largely controlled by the LTTE, is unsafe and difficult to access. The only flights within Sri Lanka operate between LTTE controlled Jaffna and Colombo, and are both expensive and vulnerable. (In 1998 a flight to Colombo “mysteriously disappeared” — reportedly shot down.) The trains are unreliable, according to one tour operator, since the LTTE has “removed large parts of the railway lines to build barracks”. And the road to Jaffna has four check points — two controlled by the military and two by the LTTE.
However, some of the most beautiful parts of Sri Lanka are in these almost-impossible-to-access areas. “There’s tremendous potential in the country,” says P.K. Mohan Kumar, Chief Operating Office, Oriental Hotel Limited, and former General Manager of the Taj Samudra in Colombo. Mohan Kumar was a part of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Advisory Committee, made up of prominent hoteliers and businessmen and set up in 2000 by Ranil Wickremesinghe soon after he was elected Prime Minister, to promote tourism.
“The East coast is beautiful. It has a series of lagoons and one of world’s last stretches of virgin rain forest. That part of the island is also home to the world’s two largest mammals — the elephant and the whale,” he says, adding, “It could pose a huge challenge to the Maldives …. However, since the 1980s the island has been left unexplored.”
M. Shariq, Deputy CEO, Lanka Travel Operators, takes a similar view. “Sri Lanka has variety,” he says, “unlike the Maldives. We have beaches, wildlife sanctuaries and historical monuments for tourists, and places of religious importance for pilgrims.”
“Many tourists travel within the country,” says Kelum. “Kandy, Colombo … then, they go down South, where it’s safe — Gaulle, Hambantota, Matara.” He adds that European tourists go to Sri Lanka’s many languidly pristine beaches to swim, surf, go on underwater safaris, or just marinate in the deliciously warm sun and sand. “We also have tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya: waterfalls and Buddhist temples in Ella; an elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, near Kandy. At Tissamaharama, tourists can go on safaris, and at Yala there’s a national park.”
Sri Lanka undeniably has plenty to offer tourists, even if they’re cash strapped back packers, although the island was originally targeted at upmarket dollar flaunting, Louis Vuitton-toting visitors. “It was a high-end tourist destination until the 1980s and was expected to become the next Singapore, or Thailand,” says Mohan Kumar, adding that all the big hotels chains — the Taj, Inter Continental, Hilton, Ramada — moved in at that time.
Then, in the early 1980s, the ethnic disturbance broke out and everything changed. Occupancy rates plummeted, flights emptied and the economy began to groan. “Tourism is the third largest source of foreign exchange in the country, after repatriates and garments,” says Mohan Kumar. “But, it’s a very fragile industry. It’s security sensitive and image sensitive — especially if your market is in the developed world. And the traditional Sri Lankan market has always been the United Kingdom and Germany.”
“No foreign tourist has ever been injured, or killed, in Sri Lanka,” claims Kelum. “But when the embassy gives warnings to people, saying `don’t travel to the country’ — like they are doing now for elections — they stop coming. (A travel advisory means that medical insurance is automatically cancelled for any tourist who ignores it, so it affects/stems tourism from the developed world.”)
“Between 1984 and 2000, Sri Lanka was reeling under pressure. The tourism industry was on its knees,” says Mohan Kumar. Today, although Sri Lanka is picking up the pieces and starting over, the job markets’ still depressingly bleak. “Nobody in Colombo has jobs. They’re all sitting at home,” says Sharath, a trishaw driver. “Everyone wants to get out of here. Even if children are clever and complete schooling, there’s no way to make money. The only way out is to get away.”
A guide for foreign tourists at the Temple of the Tooth agrees. “The boys here — we call them the beach boys. Their only aim is to catch a lady, catch a man. And go to Europe, Italy, England. Everyone wants to escape. There’s nothing left.”
If Sri Lanka achieves peace, and stability, however, the country has tremendous potential with its numerous natural advantages: a warm climate, irresistible food and people, a line up of beautiful hotels housed in glamorous heritage buildings, and a range of exotic getaways set in the mountains, forests, valleys and beaches.
Now that the Sri Lankans have had a taste of peace, they’re hungering for it more than ever before — although the more cautious among them counsel against “peace at any cost”. However, an agreement of some sort between the LTTE and the army, and now the LTTE and the LTTE is vital. Otherwise, everybody stands to lose.
“Peace will change our lives, and help allay the pain of our past,” says one well-educated young Sri Lankan, waiting at tables in an empty restaurant in Kandy. “We want peace. We need peace …. We need more jobs. We want a future.”
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