Capital city bounces back

Indi Samarajiva

Normal life is returning to the streets of Colombo now that the military clampdown has at last been eased.

Today people carry their gods and statues through the streets, beating drums, cracking whips, riding elephants and perplexing traffic. After 30 years of terrorist attacks and military occupation, citizens are reclaiming the streets of Colombo.

The heart of the city’s historic downtown sits beside the port, but the constant threat of suicide bombings made this a high security zone and Colombo society retreated outwards, to the suburbs. After numerous attacks on buses, trains and public gatherings, the main association with going out was getting blown up. When a bomb blew out the windows of a girls’ school, the worry was whether the children would make it to school and back alive.

In response, the military occupied the city, setting up checkpoints and roadblocks and shutting down some streets entirely. While shops were technically able to operate, the traffic restrictions made business nearly impossible and most left. After the war ended, it was the military that showed that the streets were open again, parading war material and tanks down the Galle Face Green – in the heart of the financial and business district – in June of 2009 and 2010 for the new ‘Victory Day’ celebrations. After these public displays of control and the relaxing of checkpoints, people started returning to their town. With no bombs in the past year, they have even begun to parade and promenade and proceed with life as normal.

This July, the colourful Hindu Adi Vel procession saw hundreds of people pass along Galle Road in veneration of Lord Murugan, locally known as Kataragama, the God of War. This was the first time in 16 years that local Tamils were able to honour the deity in this way. In the same month there were Buddhist and Christian processions, bearing statues, playing music and even dancing.

At Vesak, in May, the streets of Colombo were decked in lights to celebrate the birth of the Lord Buddha. Locals opened food stalls on the street and flagged down cars to force them to partake of communal milk rice and fruit drinks.

Traffic has also been slowed by protests, both in favour and defiance of the government. Trade unions, students and political parties have stood in the streets demanding more money, better education and the release of the imprisoned presidential candidate.

There is, however, a dark side to the new openness. Military checkpoints have been replaced by a greater police presence, enforcing traffic regulations but also sometimes fishing for bribes. And, several street dwellers have been found with their heads bashed in by rocks, robbed of the meagre fruits of their begging. The crude government response was to round up vagrants (the potential victims) and deport them to the deep south for rehabilitation.

On the whole, however, people are enjoying their newfound freedom. On an average day you can protest, take the gods for a walk, or maybe just go out with the children. For most Colombo residents, this is a very big thing.


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