WHEN WAR COMES HOME
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). When War Comes Home. LMD. August 2008. Page133. Volume 15, Issue 1. ISSN 1391-135X.
“There are no naïve solutions anymore – merely a lack of accountability”
I hope I am wrong, but by May 2008, tourism in Sri Lanka could be severely damaged” I said into the microphone of Deepika Shetty, the producer of a television show in Singapore who had now moved onto a printed media role with the Straits Times. I was seated with Deepika and Sanjiva Gautamadasa, our Head of Marketing, in a pleasant courtyard adjoining the Hall de Galle. The Galle Literary Festival was in its second year and it was proving to be a roaring success. So why would I dampen spirits on such a negative note? It was because I always prefer to give an honest answer, even if it is not an answer which is in my best interest. I had been asked the question as during the Galle Literary Festival the government abrogated the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. I had been puzzled. Why bother to formally abrogate the ceasefire when it no longer existed in reality and the military was seemingly scoring a string of successes backed by air power which had turned the tide in its favour.
It appeared that the reason for a formal abrogation of the ceasefire was to allow the government to have the independent ceasefire monitors removed, presumably to reduce criticisms. You would not have a board of directors voting to have the internal audit department removed to enable them to pursue a more vigorous policy of profit growth through enhanced risk taking without being deflected by internal audit queries. But at a national level, it seems we wanted to intensify the war without fear of criticisms of policy or the inevitable collateral damage.
I had trained as a chartered accountant with my first five years of work experience in auditing financial institutions in London. Even with controls in place, I saw how the city failed to curb Nick Leeson from bankrupting the merchant bank Barings. I did not need a background in human rights to understand how a war waged without fear of criticisms would result in avoidable civilian casualties and generate more volunteers for suicide bombers. In my first ten years in London there was scarcely a week when one of my train journeys was not interrupted by a suspect parcel. One of the buildings I worked in was rendered inoperable for a few days by a large bomb targeting another building.
In February, I could see the war coming home to Colombo by May or June. Many of my colleagues and friends disagreed. They pointed out the success of the military in preventing bomb attacks in Colombo. A year had passed with just one or two suicide attacks on very senior personnel. I felt that the perceived success was due more because the LTTE had chosen not to engage in a spate of small attacks on civilians. With their backs up against the wall, it would be expected of them to engage in diversionary tactics in the future.
In the last week of May, the war did come to Colombo with intensity. My driver missed the bomb at Lotus Road in Fort by five minutes. But a week later, he was injured slightly on the bomb on the train in Dehiwela. By the first week of June when I am writing this, every few days, I find anxious colleagues checking whether any of their friends or relatives were injured or killed in a bomb explosion. Colombo would mourn the loss of its dead and in the Wanni they in turn mourned the civilians who died in collateral damage.
In June 2008, Deepika was back again to write a story for the Strait Times, on the Buddhist Trail. We had dinner at Tintagel with Sanjiva and Renton de Alwis, the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority and Mahika Bartholemeusz the Team Leader for Public Relations. I knew most of the resort hotels were empty and that Lanka Buisiness Online had carried a story of hotels in the South closing down. Deepika did not ask me this time, how tourism was faring. So I kept my mouth firmly shut and listened to Renton and Mahika explaining how Sri Lankan Tourism will be planting ten million trees. A bit of a shame about my accountancy background, a few years of gardening would have been a real help.
This war is too complex for me to even venture into offering naive solutions. However a worry for me is the ever increasing debate in the press that those who question war policy are un-patriotic. On the contrary, being accountable, works well in both war and peace. No less than General Sir Michael Rose, a SAS war hero said that Prime Minister Tony Blair should be impeached for taking Britain to war in Iraq. The freedom to be self-critical allows a tiny nation like Britain to remain as the world’s fourth largest economy. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here for another tiny nation like Sri Lanka. Being open to challenge is not a weakness, it creates an environment for alternatives to be explored or for the same policies to be pursued with more stringent margins of civil safety.