Photo of the Galle Face Hotel in happier times, by Glenn Sundeen
At 1:50 am Sunday, when most of Colombo was either sleeping or watching Sri Lanka’s cricketing heroes succumb to Australia in the final of the World Cup being played a dozen time zones away in Barbados in front of their junketing president, Mahinda Rajapakse, the Road Warrior-style air force of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched a raid on Colombo.
It was the third such raid the Tamil Eelam Air Force had undertaken in a month and the second on Colombo, seen by the Tigers from their homeland lair in the northeast as the Sinhalese enemy capital. The Tigers’ jerry-built propeller planes – adapted Zlin Z-143s, or Czech Cessnas – hit two oil dumps near Colombo’s port and flew back to the safety of Eelam, as the LTTE calls the Tamil regions under their control. The Sri Lankan military’s jet fighters stayed in their hangars, their pilots presumably too engrossed in cricket to engage the Zlins, a low-flying, single-engined two-seat plane manufactured by a currently bankrupt Czech company.
This is a strange, half-hearted war from a Colombo standpoint. The gun emplacement on the tumbledown turret on Colombo’s Galle Road waterfront is one of the cushier postings for young grunts defending Sri Lanka. The tower directly overlooks the rococo, colonial-era Galle Face Hotel’s swimming pool, where there are limitless opportunities for bored soldiers to spy on bikinied foreigners lazily stroking away their holidays below. If the grunts get really lucky, barer flesh titillates like neon from the guest bathrooms of the Galle Face’s south wing, barely 50 metres away.
Binoculars glinting into the setting sun are a feature of a Galle Face stay. It’s about the most exciting thing that happens here, from both sides.
Having watched Australia demolish the Lanka bowlers on the terrace TV downstairs, I had retired to Room 4012 at midnight, two hours before the raid. The last thing I remember noticing before nodding off was the dull glow of a TV inside the gun tower. At 2 am, I was awakened by what sounded like popping fireworks and some dull thuds. Had Sri Lanka fought back in Barbados, and were people celebrating? I flicked on the TV – Sri Lanka was still battling. I looked out the window just as the tower erupted in a deafening blaze of orange gunfire.
This was no concentrated firing. As anti-aircraft tracers lit up the night sky, the boys on the tower just blazed away Rambo-like in a wide arc. Who knows whether they were told to do so. Those guns have always been silent but as tracers trailed over the sky, here was an opportunity to loose off a few in wartime. At one point they even seemed to be shooting into the street below.
The Kafkaesque elements continued into Sunday breakfast on the hotel terrace, where regular guests know that crows like to picnic on the hotel buffet. The table hubbub was louder than usual, as immaculately uniformed staff, in ironic counterpoint to the previous night’s fireworks, stalked the hotel’s iconic garden, shooting pebbles with slingshots at the stealthy sky-borne invaders seeking snacks. Colombo's hotel managers were reportedly instructing staff not to tell curious foreign guests what had happened and why, lest already devastated tourist numbers dive further.
The attack was yet another embarrassment to Rajapakse’s dysfunctional government, which is just the latest in a long list of poor administrators that have long burdened war-weary Sri Lankans. That was evident in the lockdown Colombo went into during Sunday’s attacks. The government ordered the city’s power supply cut, presumably to deny the Tiger pilots visibility. But Lankans have long known the state power utility, the Ceylon Electricity Board, struggles to service the national grid, so many houses, buildings and hotels have generators. No sooner had the board switched off the power that Colombo was again bathed in light. The HQ of the National Intelligence Board, Sri Lanka's CIA and supposedly one of 20 'high-value targets' slated for special protection, blazed brighter than most.
The Tigers know all this; indeed they seem to know Colombo better than the politicians. The LTTE have a long list of government assassinations, but their approach seems to be to ridicule Colombo’s leaders, many of whom have economic interests in maintaining the 25 year-old war and are in denial that the Tigers’ Eelam functions as a country, with all the accoutrements of a state. Eelam has designated borders and border control, ministries, customs and tax collections, a central bank and a capital, Killinochchi. The LTTE may be the world’s only proscribed terrorist organization that has a navy and, as we now know, an air force.
And the Tigers have been having particular fun with the corpulent Rajapakse. Since coming to office in 2005, he has been burnishing his Sinhalese nationalist credentials by developing a cult of personality. His photos have been going up on billboards next to new statues of Dutugemenu, the Sinhalese warrior-king who defeated his Tamil rival more than 2,000 years ago astride his elephant. The symbolism is laid on very thick – every Lankan knows the fable, much as Balkans recall ancient battles and slights to justify modern-day ethnic cleansing.
Rajapakse won the presidency after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led coalition he inherited from Chandrika Kumaratunga had won 105 of 225 seats in 2004 parliamentary polls. His is a government where the term backbencher is virtually unknown. Rajapakse presides over a cabinet of 52 – one of the biggest in the world. There are another 33 “non-cabinet’ ministers and a further 20 “deputy ministers.”
With a million-plus people employed in its civil service, Sri Lanka also has one of the biggest public payrolls in the world, relative to its 21 million population. Official posts mean perks; cars, drivers, houses, staff, budgets, air-conditioning, but what precisely does the Minister of Plan Implementation do? The two Ministers of Nation Building? Of Coconut Development? Why are there six agriculture-related ministries?
But the smiling Rajapakse has blundered. He got on a plane to the Caribbean hours after Sri Lanka beat New Zealand last Tuesday to reach the World Cup, anxious to cozy up to the island’s skilful cricketers – with Sinhalese, Tamil, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu members they present a rainbow of the possible on this troubled island. The Tigers had said they would suspend hostilities for the semi-final but it seems the moment victory was secured against the Kiwis was when the LTTE decided cricket-obsessed Colombo would be attacked during the weekend final.
Colombo’s politicians did the rest. Saturday’s press carried bitter attacks from the opposition United National Party, whose government had signed the 2002 ceasefire with the LTTE, which is now in tatters under Rajapakse They charged that the president had abandoned the country, likening Rajapakse to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. The Tigers attacked a day later and, doubtless, will do so again and again, probably until Rajapakse is laughed out of office.
Eric Ellis is South-East Asia correspondent of Fortune Magazine