The President visits Peradeniya

The ruling party in Sri Lanka is riding a wave of popularity right now because of the Sri Lankan Army’s recent successes against the Tamil Tigers. In keeping with the tradition of parliamentary democracies, that means that it is a good time for the ruling party to call for elections, in a bid to increase their share of  representatives. Two provinces, the Central Province and the North Western Province, were selected by the ruling party to have an election for their respective provincial councils, at least partially for the ruling party to gauge their strength before possibly calling for national elections. Kandy is part of the Central Province and so we have gotten a small taste of elections Sri Lanka-style.

The campaign has been going on for about a month. The election itself is this Saturday. Interestingly, this means that the campaigning should be over as election law in Sri Lanka prohibits campaign events within 48 hours of an election. Parties in Sri Lanka all have identifying symbols, kind of like the Democratic ass and the Republican elephant. The ruling party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SFLP), has as its symbol the leaf of the betel tree. The largest opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), has as its symbol the elephant. The Marxist, Sinhalese nationalist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) has a hand bell for its symbol. The symbols appear on the rather lengthy ballots as an aid to remind voters who among the many names represents which party.

The parties seem to compete in the process of tearing down the posters of their rivals and putting up posters for their party. Near our house is an underpass where the campaign posters seem to change daily, despite election laws prohibiting the use of public property for political advertising in the first place. During the campaign, the party symbols, along with slogans in Sinhala, are painted on the streets. I was a bit disturbed that, until recently, the only painted symbols on the path I walk to work were those of the JVP. There has been a certain amount of rowdiness and low level violence. Universities here are divided into “Faculties,” what we would call colleges, devoted to a group of disciplines. In the US, a university usually has a College of Arts and Science. In Sri Lanka, the custom is to have separate Arts Faculties and  Science Faculties. Imagine our surprise when we heard the news that at the University of Keleniya, a fistfight had broken out between students of the Arts Faculty and the students of the Science Faculty! The Culture Wars brought to street level! It turns out that the Arts Faculty has many supporters of the JVP and the Science Faculty supporters of more mainline parties. The police had to break it up. Of course no one “won” partly because a victory would be hard to define and partly because the police were all too happy to take out their own frustrations on the students, irrespective of which faculty the students represented. In some of the smaller towns there has been some low level violence with, for example, a bus being overturned and set on fire in a town south of us. And, yes, we are staying off the streets on Saturday.

Since we are not eligible to vote, no one has bothered trying to influence our non-existing vote. Since we get hassled all the time for money, this was a welcome respite. Several parties did stop by our house to give campaign literature to our maid. She showed about as much interest in the pamphlets as most Americans would. But the effect on our lives changed early this week when it was announced that President Mahinda Rajapakse himself would address the last SLFP rally in the Central Province to be held less than a kilometer (half mile) from our house.

It began three days before the rally (and two days before the public announcement of the visit). I was away at work, but came home to the report that two policemen had come by to check to see who was registered to live at our house. The records were considerably out of date, having not recorded the death four years ago of the owner of the house, nor the fact that both sons had left the house some time ago. Not surprisingly, our presence and our landlady’s absence was also not recorded. The plainclothes policemen were very polite and showed Kris their IDs upon request. They asked the maid for her ID card, but did not ask Kris for her passport. Satisfied to have the records brought up to date, they left.

Two different policemen showed up the next day. I happened to be home and was the one to answer the door. Once again the officers were very polite, were in plainclothes,  and showed me ID when I asked. I invited them in and they sat on the couch. This time they wanted the IDs of all three of us. They inspected them closely, seemed satisfied, and they left. This time they told us that they were checking because the president was visiting Kandy. Well, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s “Second City,” the president has an official residence in Kandy, and he has visited Kandy several times during our stay here, but the security had never reached this level.

That afternoon, we learned that the president was coming to address a rally to be held in Peradeniya, not Kandy, thus the location was much closer to our house than for his usual visits to Kandy. (We are just on the Kandy side of the border between Kandy and Peradeniya.) I woke up on the morning of the rally and started my walk to work. At the end of my lane, there were half a dozen uniformed policemen. There were another half dozen, some armed with automatic weapons, spaced along the twenty meters to the first road junction. At the junction there were another half dozen manning a road block/checkpoint. The morning commute traffic along the road into our neighborhood was crawling. I pulled out my cell phone to call Kris with a heads up. On my first try, the phone displayed the message “Call not permitted.” Not surprising that they would block cell calls when the cell phone is the preferred trigger device for roadside bombs. However after walking another ten meters, the call went through and I left Kris know what she was in for when she went out to shop for groceries.

When I got to work, I checked the online Sri Lankan newspapers and discovered that the precise location of the rally was Getambe. I had heard the name but did not know exactly where it was. A colleague clued me in that it was on the main Kandy to Colombo road, one junction toward Kandy from the junction we use to go to Kandy. That is, it was about one kilometer (about one half mile) from our house. So they were setting up an impressive security perimeter.

When the rally began, Kris and I and some of the other Fulbrighters were getting the first lesson in our second attempt at learning some Sinhala. Kris let me know that the police had once again visited our house, this time in uniform with one of the policemen armed with an automatic weapon, and once again checked the IDs of both her and the maid. After the class, we took a tuk-tuk home. No hassles until we got to the road block mentioned above. Then our tuk-tuk was stopped and the driver’s ID checked. Though they spoke in Sinhala, it was clear that the driver was asked where he was taking us. At that point we could see our destination and our driver simply had to point. We were passed through only to be stopped again ten meters further down the road, that is, within clear sight and shouting distance from the first checkpoint. We were looked over again, but apparently someone did shout and we were passed through without showing ID. And then we passed through the half dozen police at the entrance to our lane. As near as we could tell these were the same policemen who were at the entrance to our lane when I walked to work that morning some seven hours previously.

By the time I walked to work the next morning, all evidence of the security forces of the day before had evaporated as completely as if they were a conjury of my sun-baked imagination. My confidence in the accuracy of my memory was restored, however, when I noticed that there were several new painted campaign slogans on the roadway on my path to the Science Faculty, and they all featured the betel leaf.



1 Comment

  1. Kris said,

    February 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    But wait! There’s more! I went into Kandy and my tuktuk was stopped again, by both police and military security people, and the driver had to get out and show them his license and his vehicle registration. There was another traffic jam in Kandy because of preparations for a downtown rally. While I was inside a fabric shop, 100 men marched by waving blue pompons and yelling; the Tamil merchants looked glum. They said they didn’t vote. Then on the slow trip home, tuktuk full of groceries and stuff, I saw a flatbed semi full of noisy cheering men, also waving blue plastic pompons–I wondered if they were sober, and if they were volunteers or paid advocates for their party. That night there were loud firecrackers set off several times, adding a tension to the night; a few small fires were burning in the concrete road drains, making the road look like a bigger fire was about to happen. It didn’t, because they burn dry clippings, and the plants growing are very, very green. But the fires give off a lot of smoke. One of our Fulbright friends said she had been told that Kandy is under curfew for the weekend, so we are planning to hole up at home. I bought enough groceries today to feed us, and we can catch up on our reading and blogging and writing. We’re definitely not in Kansas any more…

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