Post War Sri Lanka – sampling the discussion

Discussion of post war Sri Lanka these days is careening all over the place as it should. The hardest task will be for the government to map out policies and processes into post war reconciliation/reconstruction modes. The hard work is I hope going on quietly. At some point the Sri Lankan Diaspora (note lack of ethnic specifics) will at some-point provide some sort of hard currency support. Right now it seems everyone is squinting at patterns pointing to the future. In such situations it is always easier (and comprehendible) to focus on specific issues. Out of random I found two articles outside the blogosphere that seem interesting that blances the hopes and the challenges.

One is the task of taking care of wounded and disabled soldiers – along with the death benefits to the next of kin. Along side government funded efforts have always been private initiatives such as donating artificial to war veterans. Post war rehabilitation efforts needs to be much broader given the deaths and the injuries during the last months of the war. The Economist has an interesting overview on the issue

On a more optimistic note are the prospects for tourism. Specially in the East coast. For most of my life, talk of the tourism industry in Sri Lanka has always been about dealing with bad times. Now the popular words seem to be “potential” and “vast”.’s article on tourism prospects in  post war Sri Lanka seems to capture this mood. 

A nice change from the time when the word “potential” was more frequently used when bemoaning Sri Lanka.

Documentary: Special Task Force Sri Lanka on you tube

Documentary about Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force (STF) is available on Youtube – many thanks to Lankika who kindly posted the links in a comment. The documentary is part of a series called “Chris Ryan’s Elite World Cops” aired on the Bravo channel. This episode of the documentary follows ex SAS member Chris Ryan interviewing and training with the Sri Lankan STF.

The episode is chopped up into 5 segments (due to the limits of the permitted running time on you tube). On my creaky Sri Lankan broadband link the segment I watched took a while to load. Managed to watch all of part 2.

The degree of access granted to the cameras is quite impressive. The discussion seems quite detailed in terms of layman terms But I doubt if there drills and techniques reveal any secrets. The Sri Lankan blogopshere’s reluctant defence correspondent will most likely know better.

The Bravo channel’s motto is “Bravo – Entertaining Men Since 1985” catering to

“male viewers with a target demographic of 18-35. It is a gritty channel, offering comedy, drama and real-life”

Essentially not your NGO “peacenik” audience😉

I have no idea about the copyright issues of this stuff being posted on online.

Anyway here are the links. Hope the six pack is nearby😉

  • Part 1 – mainly introductory stuff that is only useful if you don’t know where Sri Lanka is
  • Part 2 – Jungle patrol stuff plus short interview with STF officer/trainer
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Part 5

Paranthan/Nevil war zone Google Earth view

Google Earth image below shows part the open terrain around Nevil in Northern Sri Lanka. As the world celebrates Christmas lots of humans from a volunteer army are fighting a crumbling terrorist death cult in the torrential rain soaked terrain shown below. The Defencewire blog has a post covering the details. For those looking for a bigger (military) picture, The Lone Ranger blog has posts on the strategic context of the fighting. Not that the human killing and dying in the mud down there will be doing much reading right now.

To most of the world its just another irrelevant little war in a third world hole. Perhaps there might be time to spare a futile thought for all the lives lost due to the stupidity of politicians long ago. The only people really worried about the end of the war are the politicians and the arms dealers. But lets not get all worked up and cynical and negative. Specially these days when most minds are firmly fixed on high spirits (20% proof and above) .

Open terrain around Nevil in Northern Sri Lanka -Google Earth image

Soldiers’ stories

“Their bodies were stacked and burnt like fire wood”. It was about first JVP Insurrection in 1971. The old solider had said it in quiet matter-a-fact Sinhala, looking at something invisible and far away. The words and the moment are among the fragments I can remember. The details of the story, like most childhood memories, have been swallowed by the encroaching fog of time. Whenever I see a young solider on sentry duty on a Colombo Street, the veteran’s story occasionally wafts through my mind. His expression of resigned acceptance and hopeless disgust springs into clear focus. It is a universally recognisable face if you watch lots of documentaries. I’m just no good at painting it with words.

I first heard the stories as a pre-teen hanging around my father’s workplace after school. Virtually all the company drivers were ex army men. Years later I pieced together that they were trained as drivers in the latter part of their army careers. One off them graduated to the role of VIP driver hauling dignitaries for the 5th non aligned summit in 1976. They had all served in together in the Ceylon Light Infantry (now called the Sri Lanka Light Infantry) — though not in the same unit. They always referred to their regiment “CLI” the same way an Oxford grad might the name of their College to signal their pedigree.

CLI training seems to have given them temperament for work that meant lots of sitting around deep in news papers with occasional glances at a watch. Or snooze whenever the opportunity arose. Yet they always turned up on time. Alert with vehicle cleaned and tanked up to go. At the end of long trips they safely guided the van load of snoring passengers along the tiring unlit third world roads back to Colombo.

The company trusted them with an unusual level authority and freedom. Their estimates of travel times to often obscure places were accepted without question by the English speaking telephone users behind desks in air conditioned rooms.

My father trusted they’re driving enough to take me on his outstation work trips during school holidays — so I could “see the country”. From my usual seat between the driver and my father I watched the ragged dust fringed Sri Lankan roads unroll before the windscreen of many vans. Kataragama, Anuradapura, Maho, Nuwara Elieya, Polonaruwa, Yala, Kurunagala, and Hanbantota. Obscure places all around Kandy. We went deep into the winding roads of tea, coconut, and rubber estates. Visited hopeful new towns in dry zone Mahawali schemes.

Overnight stays meant rest houses or circuit bungalows with pink or blue walls, creaky fans and mosquito nets. Where my father insisted everyone, executive and driver a like eat at the same table. For some this took some time to get used to. Along with the family trips, these journeys cemented my familiarity with the world of Sri Lanka’s rest houses.

An inevitable part of these travels were the hours sitting in the van judiciously parked in these shade, doors open to invite the breeze. While my farther went through his mind numbingly incomprehensible meetings and inspections of what ever factory/farm/installation we came to see. I was entrusted in the care of the driver who was generally nonplussed about baby sitting the “Mahathaya’s baba” (literarily: the “boss’s” kid). I was well armed with a stash of Sinhala children’s novels and Biggles books so I suppose I wasn’t a handful.

In between silent readings of our respective books and newspapers the stories trickled out. Mostly odd anecdotes of army life in the late 60s, early 70s when getting into the CLI (let alone the army) was an achievement. Many years later, these stories made Carl Muller’s Spit and Polish seem familiar. Though the stories I heard were more about bumbling Sergeants and the dullness of late night peace time sentry duty than the wild antics in Muller’s novel.

Grimmer accounts of the 1971 JVP uprising were not a major feature. Something about severed heads left by road sides and pathetic home made grenades built out of condensed milk cans would occasionally slip in. I was too young at the time to grasp the significance of the imagery. Specifically how human bodies might burn. Or how it might smell. I never asked what it was like to be shot at. I suppose it must have been similar to what Biggles felt when the windscreen disintegrated in a hale of German bullets — you yelled “oh gosh” and pulled an Immelmann turn.

I listened without pronouncing judgement and the stories kept coming. I doubt if they told me these stories to spook an ignorant child. Telling the stories seemed make them more relaxed. They never mentioned these stories when there were other adults around. I guess I must have been a tolerable audience. Years later, when I was “abroad” my father use to pass on their regards over the phone. Or casually mention that driver X or Y recalled one of our journeys. Most of which I could barely remember. They have long since left the company and moved on to I think better things with grown up children of their own.

I wonder what horrors the stories veterans on both sides of the Eelam wars carry in them. Chances are you won’t be reading them in books. They will trickle out unexpected in casual conversation. A veritable gold mine for someone with a first world publisher and a knack for spinning novels from “oral” histories.

Donating artificial limbs to war veterans

Mallikarama Temple, Ratmalana held its monthly donation of artificial limbs to disabled war veterans on Saturday (24th Nov. 2007). The programme has been held every full moon (poya) day since 1995. The event is short a simple affair – conducted after the evening’s usual religious ceremonies were over. The gathering consists of the donors, the recipients, and a smattering of devotees still hanging around. Yet it gives a interesting complicated window into an usually inconspicuous part of Sri Lankan life.

The “handing over” part takes place in the wall-less pillared sermon hall. Eight young men in off white Sarongs and long sleeve shirts sit on a low bench, crutches neatly stacked under it. They are about my age or younger. Eight different moods despite the uniform attire and short hair cuts. The most jovial looking of the group seems to be saying something reassuring to his concerned looking bench mate. Something about it reminded me of school assemblies.

The donors and other attendees sit on the floor. A heavily meddled, moustached lance corporal waits by the table with the limbs. The footwear on each limb has a shoes that corresponds to the shoe on each veteran. However, nothing is left to chance – each limb is well labelled.

The Venerable Ranasgalle Gnanaweera Thero “erhms” into the mike and gives a brief history of the ceremony followed by a short sermon. Each donor is asked to step forward. After paying their respects to the thero, they are given a limb by the lance corporal.

The recipient’s name is called – no mention of rank, regiment, or location of where the wound occurred. A thinnish guy with a shot hair cut stands with practised steadiness on his remaining leg. Sort of similar to this picture (minus the dog and seated monk. The recipient didn’t have to move away from the bench).

The rigid artificial limb, despite its cool metallic feel, is surprisingly light. It is presented and accepted with both hands. There is a sentence or two on each donor’s motive. Mostly to incur some meritorious karma on a relative who is in ill health. Or recovering from something nasty. A pair of donors make the odd exception.

After the handing over is complete, the recipients put on their limbs. Yes, it feels odd to write that sentence too – I made it a point to avoid the “leg up” puns when writing this post. Each artificial limb has a foam core padding inside. The foam core is slipped onto the bandaged stump of the missing limb. Then the padded stump is inserted into the hollow of the artificial limb. It looks simple as putting on a shoe. All eight get up and walked about. Some quite naturally, others with a slight limp. One veteran whose entire right leg is gone carries his crutches but manages to stride about with an occasional wince.

You’d have to be an emotionally dead psychopath not to be “moved”.

Once the newly mobile veterans take their seats, there is a short blessing and it is over. People mingle about and steady trickle out.

I speak with two of the recipients. Both lost their limbs in Jaffna. One in 1996, the other in January 2007. The 1996 veteran – now a father of 3 – said this is his second limb. The limbs wear out with use. He said he only uses it when travelling. At home it is still the crutches. For the other, this ceremony is perhaps one of many firsts. After experience of the taken for the wound to heal, the rehabilitation, and the waiting list. He is still in the army, stationed at the regimental HQ after the rehab training.

Each limb cost about 10,000 rupees (less than a plane ticket for a crony on the entourage of the president’s state visits). The army makes them but the materials have to be purchased from elsewhere. Clearly there are budgetary issues though I don’t know the details.

It is time to go. One of the recipients jumps down from the raised platform of the sermon hall, landing firmly on both feet and walks off with a poorly suppressed smile. We amble to our chariot and wiggle ourselves into the Galle road traffic.