Chapter 4, Part 24
We are in a small two-story restaurant right at the heart of a constantly busy district where our Australian-run homestay is located. Inside, the Italian owner is busy behind the counter while a local staff member attends the cashier. Others dash from one table to another, serving dishes to an international clientele, from Japanese to Europeans. It would have been a normal scene in Asia’s business hubs, like Hong Kong or Singapore. But we are in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s bustling financial center with an increasingly cosmopolitan flair.
That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, though, for Colombo has been a thriving port since the British took control of Ceylon from the Dutch at the end of the 18th century. In the 1950s, when the island was still a fledgling independent nation, Colombo not only served as a major port of call along the shipping lines of the Indian Ocean, but also connected cities in Europe and Southeast Asia during the early years of the jet age. However, as a new prime minister took office and began implementing radical changes, the country was soon directed toward a dangerous path.
Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike became Ceylon’s fourth prime minister in 1956. Born to a Sinhalese Anglican Christian family, the adult Bandaranaike then converted to Buddhism. In his first months as prime minister, a controversial act was introduced: English was dropped entirely from the country’s official languages, leaving only Sinhalese. It marked the beginning of a period of discrimination against the Tamil minority on the island, a man-made problem which would prove costly for the entire nation.
Several years after its introduction, there were efforts to revise the act. However, discontentment among Buddhist extremists soon escalated, resulting in the assassination of Bandaranaike in 1959. His wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then took the helm of her husband’s party, and became the world’s first ever female prime minister following the victory of her party’s coalition in the 1960 elections. During her terms, she turned Sri Lanka into a left-leaning country by introducing socialist economic policies and forging closer ties with Moscow and Beijing.
In the 1970s, the country’s Tamil community saw further government-sanctioned discrimination against them. From a policy which favored Sinhalese students over their Tamil counterparts, resulting in a drop of university admittance among the Tamils, to the preference given to Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s constitution, resentment grew among the Tamils which emboldened the separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE/Tamil Tigers) to launch attacks all across the country.
During the height of the decades-long civil war, the LTTE targeted places which were both symbolic to the Sinhalese people and important to the country’s economy. In 1985, they massacred pilgrims at Anuradhapura’s most sacred Buddhist site, an event our Anuradhapura-native host in Kandy still vividly remembers. Then in the 1990s, the Tamil Tigers attacked the heart of Colombo’s financial district in Fort. A bomb-loaded truck exploded at the main gate of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 1996. A year later, the World Trade Center – where the Colombo Stock Exchange was located – was attacked only a few days after its inauguration. These incidents prompted the government to ban motorized vehicles from entering most parts of Fort which is also home to the President’s House as well as the Presidential Secretariat. The multiple security checkpoints and the heavy presence of military personnel in the district practically shut it off from civilians, locals and tourists alike.
By the time of my first visit to the city in 2012, the civil war had ended. However, tension was still palpable, particularly in Fort. As the Presidential Secretariat – formerly the Old Parliament building – emerged through the window of my auto rickshaw, so did the constantly vigilant security staff guarding the premises, including a number who stood on the beach across the street. Signboards warning people not to take photographs of the beautiful sand-colored Neoclassical building were mounted on its fence. The watchful eyes of uniformed officers made sure no one dared to even sneak a photo.
However, on my second time in Colombo, Fort feels refreshingly different. Our hosts, Drew and his Sri Lankan-Australian wife, Fiona, tell us about the reopening of Fort to the public. She recounts how Cargills department store, also located in the old district, was a lively place when she was little. After having breakfast at their cozy guesthouse, we take an auto rickshaw to Fort. Minutes later as we’re approaching the Presidential Secretariat building, I quickly grab my camera and start taking photos before any security guards see me.
But something is not quite right. There is no police officer, no military personnel, no intimidating faces at all.
As we get off, I instantly notice the absence of the signboards. Does that mean it’s now okay to take photos of the building? I wonder. One, two, three photos, nobody seems to care. Confounded by the laid back atmosphere, I walk toward the heart of Fort – the President’s House itself – with James following me closely. We pass an unmanned security post where a steel gate is left open, allowing cars and motorbikes to go through, and soon we are already in front of the Central Bank. At the intersection of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha (formerly Queens Street) stands a 19th-century lighthouse which was turned into a clock tower in the mid-20th century – the clock, however, had been installed long before the decommissioning of the lighthouse. Behind it is another checkpoint, a telltale sign of an important site beyond – Google Street View can only afford to go up to this point.
It is in fact the location of the president’s abode, Sri Lanka’s own White House, as well as the General Post Office building opposite the palace. Next to it is the former Standard Chartered Bank office with its distinctive sculpted elephant heads, rendering the edifice an exotic Sri Lankan charm. Then we walk down the small street to the north of the General Post Office building, and end up at the York Street junction, a busy intersection lined by elegant Edwardian buildings. Walking around this part of Colombo that was long off-limits to civilians is a sobering experience and a reminder of the dire consequences of wars – they separate people, restrict movement, and instill fear, among other things.
This second trip to Sri Lanka’s biggest city ends too soon. However, it drastically changes my perception of the city and leaves me wondering how much more cosmopolitan, progressive, and exciting it will become years from now, as long as everyone is willing to move forward, develop the city and its communities, and heal from the scars of war.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.