Colombo sheds image of fear


  • Letters
  • Thursday, 14 Aug 2003

BY SHAHANAAZ HABIB

COLOMBO: Two years ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bombed the Bandaranaike International Airport, destroying a fleet of planes, but today one can be forgiven for not being aware of the past conflict here.  

Like most modern cities, Colombo has impressive five-star hotels, tall classy buildings, expensive restaurants, cinemas, shops to suit every taste, posh coffee outlets, Internet cafes, fast food, night life and its share of traffic jams.  

On Sundays and public holidays, families head for the beaches to enjoy the sea. Singhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers move about happily and seem friendly towards each other. Here in the capital, there appears to be no sign of tension among the races.  

Sure, there were racial riots here back in 1983 and in the course of the 20-year war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, many were killed when the latter bombed targets in the capital including the Central Bank, Bank of Ceylon, the Elephant House ice cream place, the area outside the Prime Minister’s office and near an eye hospital.  

During wedding receptions held at all hotels, instead of handing presents over to the couple personally, guests had to give these over at a sentry point outside the hotels – to stop bombs disguised as presents from being smuggled into the hotel.  

Years ago, a parcel in a suitcase exploded at the posh Oberoi Hotel, killing several people. But all this seems to be a thing of the past. The atmosphere now seems rather relaxed. 

There used to be sentry points every 100m in the city but with the advent of possible peace they have been dismantled. The few that remain seem insignificant and inconspicuous. Gerald Malcom, a Portuguese Burgher (the term used here for Eurasians), was out near the Galle Face beach on Sunday.  

HAPPY DAYS AGAIN: A wedding reception at a hotel in Colombo recently. Years ago, guests had to leave the wedding presents at sentries outside the hotels as a precaution after a bomb exploded at the Oberoi Hotel.

“Before, there were no people out on the beach because they were afraid. From time to time we could hear bombs going off somewhere in the capital,” he said. But it was not fear alone that kept people away from Colombo’s lovely beach. The security sentry point along Galle Face beachfront for example did not allow people to go to the beach.  

Malcom said since the peace talks started between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in February last year, life has changed. ”We can go to the beach. We can go out at night. There is a night life now. And there are also more jobs,” he said.  

He added there were many Burghers living in Australia and Italy now but those who remained here, although only a small minority group, were not discriminated against and were part of the Sri Lankan community and were happy to have peace.  

“Even a small child does not like fighting,” said Malcom, who teaches the deaf. The Singhalese Sri Lankan government and LTTE have been at war for 20 years with the latter pushing for its own separate state.  

After two decades of fighting, peace seems on the cards now as LTTE agreed to set aside its demand for a separate homeland in exchange for “substantial autonomy” in the Tamil majority areas.  

The guns have fallen silent and the ceasefire between the two sides has been holding up for 18 months and the stalled peace talks are expected to resume soon.  

Malcom’s colleague Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Sadikeen teaches blind children. A Sri Lanka Malay, he too wants peace for the country.  

“After the ceasefire, people from all over Sri Lanka are coming to Colombo to visit as those from the north or east could not come to the capital for 20 years. So it is quite crowded in Colombo these days,” said Ibrahim, who speaks Malay at home.  

He said the Malay community here numbered about 8,000 and although they were born here, their great-great-grandfathers came from Malaya more than 200 years ago.  

“All the Malays here speak four languages – Singhalese, Tamil, English and Malay, our mother tongue. Although I have not been to Malaysia, maybe after I retire, I will visit ‘my country,’” said the 59-year-old.  

The Malays are a minority in Sri Lanka and coupled with other Muslim descendants of Arab or Indian origin, they make up about 7% of Sri Lanka’s 20 million population. Singhalese constitute 74% and Tamils another 18%.  

Ibrahim said the Malays had no problems with other communities and shared a particularly close affinity to the Burghers, who were also another minority.  

“They go to the church, we go to the mosque. They say ‘amen’ after prayers and we say ‘amin’ (so be it),” he said. He then pointed out a Sri Lanka Malay-owned Malaysian restaurant at Crescat food court which sold nasi goreng and rendang.  

While people are hopeful that the peace talks would work out, it is clear that because of many failed negotiations in the past, many still have doubts. 

In Biruwera, which is 58km south of Colombo where things seem peaceful, Boddhika Kulasingha and his friend Ravi De Silva – both Singhalese – speak openly about their doubts of the LTTE’s sincerity in the peace process.  

Touching on recent news reports that LTTE had violated the ceasefire by killing 40 government intelligence officers, Boddhika said it seemed that the Tigers were always trying to restart the war.  

“It is all a show. The LTTE says they want peace but we can’t see this in their activities.  

“They are still trying to get arms into the country. If they want peace, they would not want weapons,” said Boddhika, who has close Tamil family friends.  

His belief is that not all Tamils support the LTTE. And some Tamils also became victims of the LTTE. “I know of some Tamils who were killed by the LTTE for not supporting them,” he said.  

Ravi too has his suspicions about LTTE’s motives. “It is only because of international pressure that the Tigers are sitting down to negotiate peace with the Sri Lankan government. Otherwise they will do as they like,” he said.  

Ravi, who learnt Tamil in school, said he too believed not all Tamils backed the LTTE’s cause and fight for a separate state. In Sri Lanka, he said there were two categories of Tamils. 

The first were from Sri Lanka itself and mostly from Jaffna up north and they were middle class, educated and proud people, he said while the second category were mostly Tamils who came to Sri Lanka from South India as migrant workers and this group were not educated and lived as squatters.  

“The disparity between the two groups of Tamils is very stark. It is part of this first group of Sri Lankan Tamils who are trying to attack the government and support LTTE. “As for the second group, they are peaceful and do not want to have anything to do with the conflict.  

“They do not even want to know about it. They just want to work and get their pay,” he said, adding that generally the Singhalese got along better with the working class Indian Tamils than the middle class Jaffna Tamils.  

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