de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Missing Out on Making Capital. LMD. September 2005. Page 197. Volume 12, Issue 02, ISSN 1391-135X.
Taken aback by Sri Lanka’s failure to seize the day.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne explores Kandy on a day visit

“Oh oh! I think that man is having a video” said the policeman loudly to his colleague, a woman constable. He spoke in Sinhala, not realizing I would understand. After all, not many foreigners would understand Sinhala. I could not fault him on his judgment on the average foreigner’s grasp of Sinhala. But he was wrong to conclude I was a foreigner. Perhaps not a surprisingly wrong conclusion as not many Sri Lankans would bother to turn up with a big tripod to photograph or film the Temple of the Tooth, one the most revered religious sites in the country. Only foreigners do things like that.

This was the second time in the day. I was attempting to re-enter the grounds of the Dalada Maligawa from the entrance near Queen’s Hotel. When I first entered from the entrance near the Octagonal room, I was taken aback when a policeman politely told me that I was not allowed to video. I explained that this was a still camera. He and a colleague sought a reassurance that it was not a camera with a video capability. I truthfully assured him it was not, and he allowed me to go through. The police officers were courteous, friendly. In fact, if time had not been pressing, I may have even lingered for a chat.

But supposing I was a professional film maker. Supposing I had decided that I would do my thing for Tsunami stricken Sri Lanka and would help promote tourism by doing a film on one of the most wonderful cultural and religious sites in Asia. Perhaps I was a tech savvy Banker from London who wanted to do an amateur video and park it on the web for friends and colleagues to see. People from all walks of life, as a casual tourist or as a film maker, can encourage friends and colleagues to visit Sri Lanka by taking away happy memories on video camera. Does Sri Lanka take advantage opportunities like this? No. The only free thing we take is aid.

The Sri Lankan economy is more dependent on tourism than people realize. It is among the four key net retainers of foreign exchange and provides a tenth of the employment. “Oh alright then, your economy can falter and your people can stay in tents” an angry film maker may retort before packing his bags and flying off to promote Thailand or the Gambia or even Dubai.

I understood the thinking behind the video ban on the Temple of the Tooth. There is a fear that terrorists will use footage to plan a strike. I think this fear is un-founded. The ground plan of the complex is so simple, any terrorist group would have no problems in entering the complex and memorizing the lay out. After just one visit, I could have drawn a layout, whether it is for terrorism or for conservation. If a building did not have public access, banning video filming would serve to enhance security. The Dalada Maligawa complex is open to all. Countering terror to public buildings has other well established means which we can learn from cities like London.

As a nation how do we deal with these issues? One option is we adopt the European model with their cultural sites. If the building is deemed to be at risk from a terrorist threat, they will ensure no public vehicles can approach it, to cause damage from a truck bomb. Closed circuit cameras monitoring vehicular and pedestrian traffic will be one of many security measures. As for video, ah!, just in case you run out of film, please proceed to the museum shop where you can purchase a choice of film.

I entered the inner sanctum of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, having left my legs behind in the car. The legs (Kakul) were the long gangly legs of my tripod. Although I would be allowed in with my camera with a big lens, the tripod would not be allowed, the friendly policemen had warned me. So I took no chances and left it behind. Dangerous things could be done with a tripod. Visitors could trip over them, all sorts of James Bond devices could be hidden inside the legs and worse people may take good quality images and promote Sri Lanka stimulating economic growth. Oh we can’t have that, we like to remain poor and backward.

Once inside I hit digital frenzy clicking here there and everywhere. Much more calmly, without as much digital hum, another visitor, video taped away, with a palmcorder, in full view of security personnel. Oh, that was alright because he was a Buddhist monk. But what if the video fell into the wrong hands? Probably not much to worry about, as I explained earlier. Any reasonable terrorist group would be able to study a public building like the Dalada Maligawa well enough to build a full scale replica if they wanted to. Even if the LTTE were to kidnap the monk or pickpocket his video camera or film, they would probably learn nothing new.

Sunlight filtered into the gloom of the inner chambers though doorways and an arched tunnel. People dressed in white, in multi-coloured saris, went in and out carrying offerings of flowers, a train of white, a blur of colour. The atmosphere inside the temple was heavenly. The stuff of movie magic. But we don’t allow any decent film maker to capture this with ease. Not without subjecting them a tortuous process of applying for a permit in advance.

I was glad that I had not visited the day before. The election of the Diyawadana Nilame took place. The newspapers had warned that the area around the temple would be a high security zone. On the day of my visit, the newly elected lay custodian of the temple, was quoted in the newspapers of saying the six month campaign had not been easy and he had received death threats during the campaign. Gulp! What happened to the gentle, caring Buddhist life style. Grumbling about the lack of promotional access to one of the nation’s most revered cultural and religious sites suddenly seems a lesser issue.

Even if we get out promotional act together, we may have missed the bus. Singapore now has its own temple with a relic of the Buddha. Before long, if not already, they will have more visitors coming to it than the number that visit the whole of Sri Lanka.

But we won’t give up without a fight. The Sri Lanka Tourist Board and Sri Lankan Airline have launched an ad campaign to woo tourists. It is always better to pay and get the publicity than harness opportunities for free publicity. Is that not right?

Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist on wildlife & tourism issues. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.