Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Colombo

This Divided Island

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on 10 March 2016


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Last week, I reviewed Sri Lanka – the New Country  by Padma Rao Sundarji. This week I am taking a look at This Divided IslandStories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramaniam.You can guess at the difference between the two books just by looking at the titles. Rao is positive; Subramaniam is negative. Rao concentrates on the present and sees hope for the future; Subramaniam focuses on the past and sees dark clouds ahead; Rao wishes for peace; Subramaniam admits nostalgia for a war he did not suffer.

The top army man in the north, Major General Hathurasinghe, appears in both Padma Rao’s book and in Subramaniam’s. A Tamil woman tells Ms Rao that Hathurasinghe heard that her baby needed urgent heart surgery and came with a doctor who took the mother and baby to Colombo by plane. The baby was operated on and has been fine since. “Even today, the officers come frequently just to see how she is faring.” In Subramaniam’s book we see a different Hathurasinghe. He threatens to shoot the children (or so the author is told – he does not ask Hathurasinghe) of a woman who is asking questions about the whereabouts of her husband, Elilan, one of the top Tigers.

Subramaniam’s book received good reviews from distinguished writers –Amit Chaudhuri called it “excellent”; William Dalrymple called it “brilliant” –“a remarkable book by one of India’s most talented young writers of non-fiction”; and Kenan Malik called it “superb”. I am afraid that for a foreigner, like myself, who has lived in Sri Lanka for 14 years, yet another book about Sri Lanka by an outsider with no specialist knowledge has to work hard to justify its existence. I seem to have been reading a different book to the one reviewed by Dalrymple who believes that Subramaniam shows himself “capable of journalistic persistence and occasional moments of real bravery”.

I really do not see where “the real bravery” comes in, although the author tries his best to talk up the dangers. The war ended in May 2009 but Subramaniam did not make his first visit Sri Lanka to research this book to until 2011 (ten years later than me) although he had been for a week’s holiday in 2004. As far as I can tell from a careful reading of the book, he did not witness a single act of violence and was never in any danger. The tone irritated me right from page one when he makes a huge drama out of setting off from Colombo for the hill country at 5 a.m. “The streets glowed of sodium-lit emptiness, and Uncle W’s hatchback skimmed eastwards in silence”.

There is a ludicrous episode where he persuades someone to take him on a motor-cycle to an army base in the north. His companion advises him not to look directly at the camp lest they both be arrested. They do not attempt to take any photos. None of the soldiers takes a blind bit of notice of them. Our brave reporters get bored and ride off.

Early in the book, a snarky tone is set when he describes a meeting arranged by police to deal with the Grease Yakas phenomenon. Subramaniam writes: “Sri Lankans still felt tense, and the peace was already curdling into something sour and unhealthy. Old fears continued to throb; old ghosts transmuted into new ones”. I wonder why the author felt the need to superciliously mock the authorities for doing their best at a difficult time. There was real danger of vigilante action because of the panic. I wonder what the author means by, “before slipping into a little abstract music about communities living happily together”. Throughout the book the author makes it clear that the concept of communities living happily together bores him. War and violence is what he wants to write about. Early in the book he admits: ‘there is now no other Sri Lanka for me but the Sri Lanka of its war.”

Subramaniam gives a reasonably good account of the Tigers’ crimes as well as the army’s, although Sri Lankan readers might raise an eyebrow when he writes of the “manner in which the army had finished the war, rampaging through Tigers and Tamil civilians without distinction”. He covers the massacre at Kattankudy and the expulsion of Muslims from the north. He provides a vivid description of Black July and of the lesser grievances which preceded that horror. He deals with more recent events such the BBS persecution of Muslims. He talks to someone who was abducted in a white van and tortured.

However, he adds no new value (apart from florid prose) to old information that he has gleaned from his reading and interviewing. There are many long passages which consist only of reports of conversations he has had with people who, to my mind add nothing to what is already known, and may be unreliable narrators. The author, bizarrely, vicariously shares his interviewee Raghavan’s nostalgia for the good old days of the LTTE: “suddenly I could see it too: the glamour of the ideological life lived just outside the law, the impossible romance of a fraternity of young men out to change their world”. Just outside the law? The “impossible romance” of butchering babies in the dark?

An Indian reviewer, Mekund Belliappa, wrote, “the use of the word ‘war’ in the subtitle is misleading (or a marketing gimmick.)…There are no ‘war stories’ in This Divided Island: the author witnesses not a single violent act.” Subramaniam writes: ”Sri Lanka was a country pretending that it had been suddenly scrubbed clean of violence. But it wasn’t, of course. By some fundamental law governing the conservation of violence, it was now erupting outside the battlefield, in strange and unpredictable ways. It reminded me of a case of pox, the toxins coursing below the skin, pushing up boils and pustules that begged to be fingered and picked apart”.

“Within our tight circle, the conversation pulsed with nervousness and fear. Above Sri Lanka, the skies brooded and faded to black”. Throughout the book, the author employs this technique  of taking a normal peaceful scene and bigging it up with melodramatic vapourings. Is this the genre known as “creative non-fiction”? Kenan Malik did the same thing after visiting Sri Lanka for a few days. He had the gift of ESP in the north: “the ghosts of conflict still haunt Jaffna”. Subramaniam was similarly gifted. He writes of “inchoate dangers,” the “rank odour of menace” and many “sullen” faces. Even when he is comfortably ensconced in Colombo he “would get a glimpse of the hidden warts and scars, the anxieties and tensions.”

Subramaniam claims to be looking at Sri Lanka as a “forensic gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess how the fire caught and spread so catastrophically.” The way he finishes that paragraph gives me a queasy feeling: “but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again”. One cannot help but suspect that it would give him a vicarious thrill if the conflagration were to resume.



Sri Lanka – This Divided Island by Samanth Subramaniam was published by Atlantic Books in February 2015. It is available on Kindle.

Elders Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday July 2 2015 under the title ‘Betrayal of the Elderly.

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Professor Indralal De Silva, Senior Professor of Demography, University of Colombo, estimates that 25 percent of the population of Sri Lanka will be over 60 years of age by 2040. He argued that unless our development process is improved and sustained we would have a lower level of income to support this aging population.

Last week, I wrote that the “problem” of increasing numbers of elderly people in the world was seen as an “opportunity” for some entrepreneurs. The danger is that businesses providing care for profit might put profit before care and that abuse might take place undetected.

Abuse in Sri Lanka

I was prompted to look into this subject following a recent trip to Colombo to rescue my wife’s aunt. She had been in a so-called “care” home for three years. It seems that anyone can set up an Elders Care Home without any experience, training, qualifications or aptitude for caring for elderly people. People who seem to detest  senior citizens see that as no bar to “caring” for them. I very much doubt if the home I saw had ever been inspected.

To protect the guilty I will not mention names. The home in which my wife’s aunt was languishing was run by a person I will call “The Matron”. She had no training or expertise in the care of old people. She was a retired teacher who spent a great deal of time in a wheel chair because of arthritis in her knees. She had only one assistant who told us she was not paid a salary- what little money she had was often “borrowed” by the Matron.

We kept in regular telephone contact with the Aunt and visit whenever we can. Recent calls caused concern. Aunt said she wanted her nails cut. When we asked Matron to arrange this, she said she had given Aunt some scissors and she could cut her own nails. At one point Matron said that 80% of what Aunt said was lies and she did not like my wife’s tone.

This seemed an unusual approach to customer service, a strange way to address someone who is providing your only income. The Matron became reluctant to communicate and the Aunt kept repeating in a robotic fashion, as if brainwashed, that she was very happy and that Matron and Assistant were very good to her. We heard from another source that Aunt was crying and saying Assistant was pushing her and digging her nails into her arm.

Hell Hole

We searched around for a better home (we had not chosen Matron’s place ourselves but were paying for it on behalf of, and with contributions from, family members). We found something that seemed suitable but were finding it difficult to get to Colombo to inspect it. Before we could get there, Matron said she was no longer able to care for Aunt and asked us to remove her. Fearing that further abuse might occur in these changed circumstances, we made it to Colombo and collected the Aunt while Matron was out at a temple releasing caged sparrows for merit. Assistant was somewhat discombobulated, but we told her she had no choice but to release Aunt.

For the first time I had the chance to inspect the premises. Aunt was sitting in darkness, enduring the intense heat without a fan. Our driver asked to use the toilet and came back looking as though he was about to vomit. I went to have a look. As someone from a working class British background, I am familiar with the concept of the “outside toilet”. Working class toilets were outside in the sense that they were in the yard, but they did have a roof and a door. This one was completely exposed to the elements. There was no roof or door and dirty old saris formed the walls. There was no lid on the cistern. The whole thing was filthy. Close to the toilet was a gas hob with a shelf of dirty spice jars. It seems that this spot near the open latrine was where meals were prepared.





Mission Accomplished

We placed Aunt in an establishment which provided 24-hour nursing care with a nursing station by her door. She has her own bathroom. She can have a TV in her room but she chose to have a radio. There is a menu which changes every day and which offers different options. Matron had provided only a plain bun for breakfast and bought most meals in from outside. She would not provide milk and sugar with tea. She would not allow her to bathe or use a fan.


We will visit Aunt  as often as we can to ensure good conditions are maintained but so far, she is very happy and means it. We can even talk to her on Skype.

Should Sri Lanka Depend on People like the Matron?

If you search the internet, you will find worse cases of abuse than this. We are all going to get old- some of us sooner than others, as a callow internet troll reminded me. Yes, even you bright young things enjoying the full bloom of youth will be like the Aunt one day. Anicca.  Who is going to care for you? Who is going to care for me?

Changing social modalities means that the traditional way of caring for elderly people within the family unit is no longer possible. My English grandmother lived to be 97 and she would not have dreamed of ending her days in an institutional care home. It might have been good for her to be able to spend her final years in her own home but the burden of caring for her blighted the lives of her two youngest daughters who never married.

Caring for the Elderly

Institutional care homes are essential but who should provide them? The state has a responsibility to protect its elder citizens. More homes are needed but they need to be like the one that is now caring for the Aunt not like the one operated by the Matron. I have often pointed out the downside of privatisation particularly in areas like social services. I read with horror that the UK government is planning to privatise child protection services and give the job to a security firm that made a mess of its remit during the Olympics, has killed a few asylum seekers and makes a handsome profit from running prisons.

However, I would accept that private homes such as the one now accommodating the Aunt have a valuable part to play when the state cannot afford to provide such facilities when it cannot get its fiscal house in order or get its spending priorities right . Only today I read the news that Sri Lanka’s trade deficit widened 15.1 percent to US$ 782.9 million in April from US$ 680.2 million a year earlier. I would not have much confidence that the government could develop new capacities for caring for the elderly or mobilising the human resources necessary. Homes like the one I recently visited do have that capacity and they are ploughing back their profits to develop new ventures such as sheltered accommodation and hotel units.

The government does have a role to play in monitoring the care services provided by the private sector. Viewing the Matron’s establishment  made me wonder whether there is anything in Sri Lanka like the UK Care Quality Commission, whatever its faults. If there is such a body, it is ineffective. Monitoring “services” provided by the likes of the Matron will be difficult because such small establishments will sneak under the radar unless whistleblowers notify the authorities of their shortcomings.





Getting Death off our Roads Part 2

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This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday May 26 2015.The article was illustrated with this picture. I am not sure if the red stuff is blood or betel spit.


In a previous article in these pages, I wrote about the problem of killer buses in Sri Lanka and canvassed the opinions of Sri Lankans home and abroad.


Testing for Drugs and Alcohol


I had read that drink and drugs might be a contributory factor to the manic behaviour of some bus drivers. I had not realised that evidence for this came from the Private Bus Owners Association itself.  In May 2010, Gemenu Wijeratne, president of the association, made the frightening statement: “We did a survey of buses operating in Colombo and found that about 30 percent of drivers smoked ganja or consumed liquor before operating their vehicles.” He said some bus drivers were even addicted to heroin, blaming them for the high rate of accidents. “We have asked the police… to step up detection because these drivers have given private buses a bad reputation,” So it is the fault of the police that his drivers are killing people because they are stoned out of their minds! Five years on, what has Wijeratne done to clean up his members’ act? Should not his association introduce some form of testing and discipline its own drivers and members?

One commenter on my previous article said that before privatisation a CTB certificate was highly prized, a CTB driver was a respected member of the community and drinking on duty and drug-taking was unheard of.

A recent survey by the IOH (Institute of Oral Health) found that 80% of the bus drivers in Maharagama and Dehiwala chew betel to keep themselves awake. Another survey showed that 70.40% of bus drivers in Jaffna chew betel. It is an offence under the Tobacco and Alcohol Act of 2006 to drive under the influence of drugs. Dr Hemantha Amarasinghe, IOH Head of Research believes that drivers should be banned from chewing betel because the combination of betel, areca nut, tobacco and slaked lime produces a “high” which puts drivers and passengers at risk.

Licensing System

One reader who commented on my previous article thought the current licensing system in Sri Lanka was merely a money-making scheme for the government. Licenses seem to be issued to all and sundry. The system  should be started again from scratch. Drivers who already hold a licence should be retested free of charge.

In other countries, people wishing to work as drivers of vehicles that carry passengers have to have a special driving licence for which they have to pass a rigorous test, following intensive training.  National Transport Commission (NTC) Chairman Renuka Perera said, in September 2014, that the NTC would in, 2015, introduce a special exam for bus drivers who would get a Public Transport Licence. When, on July 8 2014,  the then transport minister Kumara Welgama introduced new rules in parliament, the UNP’s Ajith Mannapperuma objected to plans to renew licences every four years, claiming it was aimed at getting additional revenue for the government.

New guidelines should have been applied by January 1 2015.No one should drive a public service vehicle unless authorised by the Commissioner General under Section 128A of the Motor Traffic Act. Anyone driving a bus or school van needs to satisfy the Commissioner General that he has obtained two years driving experience. He also needs a medical certificate and proof that he has completed a first-aid course. He should not have a criminal record. Recent news reports suggest that the police are not enforcing these new rules.

Training of Drivers

One commenter suggested trainers could be found abroad. Providing a squad of indigenous Sri Lankan trainers will improve the nation’s employment situation. Training should be ongoing and include compulsory workshops for owners as well as drivers. Drivers could be made to attend twice a year a class on accountability and trust in order to sensitise them to their responsibilities. They should be educated to understand their moral responsibility to their passengers by being forced to watch images of road accidents involving dangerous driving of buses and studying the causes.

Zero Tolerance

Some agreed with a point I made in my first article that errant drivers should be apprehended, taken to court and banned from driving. Others found this too draconian and preferred a demerit points system leading through suspension to eventual loss of licence.

Someone recommended a zero-tolerance approach. A zero tolerance policy imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. The theory in New York was that if you dealt with minor transgressions and did not tolerate vandalism or even dropping litter, greater crimes would also reduce. Not everyone believes that worked (see recent events in Baltimore) but that is another debate. In this context, the police should  stop vehicles that appear to be unroadworthy; vehicles belching out black smoke; vehicles driven in an erratic fashion; vehicles infringing the rules, such as crossing the white line. Having stopped them, police should take effective action against them.

The theory is applicable to the context of bus accidents. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively; they are required to impose a pre-determined punishment regardless of, extenuating circumstances, or history or influence.

Bus Lanes

More than one person suggested that, as three-wheelers, motorcycles and buses make a disproportionate contribution to accidents, they should be segregated. Other countries have separate lanes for buses and cyclists. This improves the quality of the transport service for the public and makes it easier for buses to keep to timetable. It would be difficult to impose it up here on our narrow winding mountain roads. The roads are becoming narrower still because of frequent landslips and uprooting of trees. The RDA seems to be starting a process of road widening in this area.

Public Awareness

One commenter suggested that Awareness Weeks should be established to educate the public about road safety, to teach them ways to monitor the crimes of bus drivers and how to report them. Schools should thoroughly teach children about road safety and they should be mobilised, through possibly the girl guides and boy scouts, to carry out intensive village advocacy. The aim would be to teach ordinary citizens how to whistle-blow about bad driving behaviour. The business community, via Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs and Rotary Associations, could play a part in awareness programmes and put pressure on bus owners to clean up their act. The High Priest at our local Buddhist temple is heavily involved in organising community projects, which include local Muslims, Hindus and Christians.  A similar ecumenical approach throughout the country  could address   the problem of road safety.

There should be a hotline that people could call into (perhaps managed by popular radio stations) about driver transgressions. A Citizens’ Watch to put pressure on bus owners and the police. There should be a map of fatal incidents so that citizens can keep the police on their toes.

There is already an excellent website sharing videos of idiocy on the roads.


We need some serious deep investigative reporting to name and shame corrupt owners and demonstrate their links with politicos and police. The road safety message needs to expressed strongly in Sinhala and Tamil and not just in print. Are TV programmes dealing with this problem? Can any showbiz celebrities or cricketers be persuaded to help? During the six years I was writing a monthly column for LMD, I frequently suggested covering the topic but the idea was always rejected. I haven’t seen features on road deaths in business magazines like Echelon and LMD. There is a huge economic burden caused by road accidents. Are these magazines reaching out to the business community for solutions?


Next week – how they do things elsewhere.


Travel Broadens. .. ?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 23 2011

I have long doubted the veracity of the old adage “travel broadens the mind”. Looking at the European tourists slouching around Bandarawela or Kandy in their peculiarly unflattering travel garments it seems more a case of “travel broadens the arse”.

I now prefer to follow Pascal’s maxim: “I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room”. I endeavour to move as little as possible.

In my more mobile days, I visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Turkey, Peru, Morocco, most of Europe, the Pacific northwest states of America and British Columbia. My first long-haul trip was under the aegis of an upmarket package company. In their brochure, they were, albeit in heavily-coded language, marketing prostitution. Hotels in Thailand were described as “popular with bachelors”.

My later trips were, what might be regarded by some,  independent travel but, in fact, they were package holidays with dirtier hotels. In the wilder heights of the Altiplano one should not expect luxury, but a constant diet of dishwater and dog soup out of cracked plastic bowls palled. One does treasure memories and congratulate one’s adventurous younger self – drifting around in a malfunctioning boat in the middle of Lake Titicaca as the Bolivian navy (Bolivia has no coastline but does have a navy) passed by; learning that the Huancavelica police station had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso the day after we had been inside it.

In the twilight of my years, I don’t want hardships or adventure. As I travel around Sri Lanka, I want comfort and cleanliness , if not luxury. Travelling from my mountain retreat to the Great Wen of Colombo can take eight hours and it would be good to be able to stop overnight at a comfortable and clean hotel but this humble desire has been thwarted.

My experience of a particular chain of hotels has not been pleasant. On my last visit to one of their hotels the food was simply inedible. Dinner on the first night was seer fish which was past its shelf date and had been microwaved from frozen, not grilled as I had requested. The second night we ordered chicken curry. The chicken was nothing but bone, cartilage and gristle.

The receptionist laughed when we asked if the room was clean and said of course it was. The room was not clean. There were cobwebs everywhere. The toilet and bidet had unpleasant stains on them. The shower did not work. An ash tray perched precariously on the balcony. It remained full of ash throughout our stay. Neither of us smokes. The table and chairs on the balcony were filthy.  I could see how a room a little further along was being cleaned. The boy was throwing the contents of ashtrays and bins over the balcony on to the ground. At one point he projected a red stream of betel juice over the balcony on to a tree.

Our afternoon snooze was disturbed by persistent hammering from the room next door and by a member of the “management” team shouting to a waiter across the width of the garden rather than taking the trouble to walk up to him and speak at normal volume.

The best feature of the hotel is the view which was not enhanced by mattresses, towels and bedding spread on the ground. The garden was strewn with paper plates covered in scraps of uneaten food. There had been a wedding the day before and no-one had bothered to clean up the detritus. The uneaten food was attracting swarms of flies.

All the chain’s hotels have had dirty crockery and stained tablecloths.

At least those dirty Peruvian hotels were cheap.

Over thirty years ago Dean MacCannell wrote a study of the phenomenon of tourism. His theme was that the middle classes of the west felt alienated from reality by their comfortably dull lives. Although they had been programmed to believe the fiction that everything centred on the individual, they felt the disjunction of living in a depersonalised historical epoch. If there was an authentic reality it must be elsewhere. If it was out there it could be bought.

Professor MacCannell employed Marx’s concept of fetishisation. Pure experience, which leaves no material trace, is manufactured and sold like a commodity. The tourist thinks he can buy the authentic experience which is located somewhere exotic beyond his normal experience. The tourist experience is built upon the fiction that it is outside historical time in a virtual world. Sometimes sex is what is bought without the responsibility of a human relationship.

The touristic world is filled with people who are just passing through a world furnished by the social production of highly fictionalised versions of the everyday life of traditional peoples, a museumisation of their quaintness. There is inevitably a tension between the moderns’ nervous concern for the authenticity of their touristic experience and the traditional folks’ difficulty in acting out someone else’s fantasy version of their life. Culture is tailored to suit those who pay for it, until, in the words of a Masai man, “We have ceased to be what we are; we are becoming what we seem.”

As Don de Lillo wrote in his novel The Names:

“To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.”

Once I heard an American in a hotel in the Dolomites ask what she could eat. The receptionist said, “Here is the menu”. The American said, “Menu – is that Italian for food? How cute!”

Tourism turns people into commodities. There is a conceptual linkage between sightseeing, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.

Tourism is an extractive industry. Resorts are usually operated by foreign companies. Any local benefits that do accrue must be offset against the downside, such as the commandeering of scarce, clean, fresh water by resorts to the detriment of local communities.

Whatever about all that, if Sri Lanka really does want to attract quality tourists tourist hotel management will need to sharpen up their act and provide quality service and not just extortionate prices.

I brought my complaints to the attention of top management and they said they had immediately instituted improvements. That was 15 months ago. Soon I will be revisiting that hotel and will report my findings.



Theodore Roethke Part 4 The Far Field

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday January 4 2015

Garments of adieu.


I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

Roethke in Ireland

In 1960, Richard Murphy, the distinguished Irish poet (whose father was once Mayor of Colombo and who currently lives in Sri Lanka) received warning from another Irish poet, John Montague, of Theodore Roethke’s impending visit to Ireland. In his autobiography, The Kick, Murphy writes: “I decided to try to entice him from the literary pub life of Dublin and invite him across to the west coast.” Murphy thought Roethke, who was at that time famous (in as much as poets can be famous), might help him to find an American publisher if he stayed on Inishbofin and sailed on Murphy’s boat.

Roethke responded positively and said that he and “one wife aged thirty-four, part Irish” would arrive on 25 July 1960. When Murphy first sighted them, he thought he had made a mistake in inviting them: “There they were Ted and Beatrice. A touching sadness seemed to connect her fragile elegance to his hunky dishevelment”. Roethke himself “was like a defeated old prize-fighter, growing bald, groggy and fat, clumsy on his feet, wrapped in silence…”

Once ensconced in Miko’s bar, the previously sullen Roethke became voluble, sipping alternately wine and stout and occasionally taking a naggin of Irish whiskey from his overcoat pocket. When Murphy mentioned Robert Lowell, Roethke banged the table and shouted, “Why are you always praising Lowell? I’m as mad as he is!” He then roared with laughter, making Murphy wonder if “he was deploying madness, which caused him terrible suffering when he plunged from a manic high into a deep depression, as part of a grand strategy to win fame as the greatest poet on earth – America’s answer to William Blake”. Was he licensed to be what Beatrice called “a nut, a drunk and a lecher” because he was a poet?


During his visit to Inishbofin, Roethke drank a lot and sometimes seemed on the verge of violence. Eventually Beatrice sent for a doctor who signed a certificate committing Roethke to the County Mental Hospital at Ballinasloe. The law required that he be accompanied to the hospital by police. Beatrice said that when the police were called when he had a manic turn while being presented with his Pulitzer Prize he picked one up under each arm and threw them out of the Waldorf Astoria. The local priest drove Roethke to Ballinasloe in his VW Beetle.

Six weeks later, he returned, chastened, to Inishbofin without Beatrice and Murphy got the job of typing poems for him to send to the New Yorker. Murphy was disappointed that Roethke did not get him useful contacts. Before leaving Galway, Roethke was going to stay at John Huston’s house but managed to engineer matters so that Murphy did not get the chance to meet the director’s wife, who was picking him up at the Great Southern Hotel.

Murphy thought: “Roethke’s ambition seemed deplorable because he displayed it so stridently. Without ambition I might never have written poetry but many years later I came across a sentence by Henri Michaux that left me chastened and subdued: ‘The mere ambition to write a poem is enough to kill it’.”

The Far Field

At the height of his popularity and fame, Roethke balanced his teaching career with reading tours in New York and Europe, supported by a Ford Foundation grant. During his final years he wrote the sixty-one new poems that were published posthumously in The Far Field (1964). This was the first book of Roethke that I bought- I have written on the flyleaf “February 1966”. Its power has never waned for me. The Far Field won the National Book Award. Roethke was found dead in a swimming pool on August 1 1963 on Bainbridge Island, Washington State after a party at the estate of Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. The cause of death was a heart attack although many suspected that alcohol played a part.

The main themes of The Far Field are the individual’s quest for spiritual fulfilment and coming to terms with the inevitability of death:

The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,

The poet’s immersion in nature, his sense of being evolved from primeval organisms is reflected in lines like this:

— Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

The poem employs  rhythms which flow like water and move like rustling leaves.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland, —
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plane,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.

Sad to think that when these words were published the poet was already dead:

For to come upon warblers in early May

Was to forget time and death:

How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,

And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, —

Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, —

Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,

Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,

Still for a moment,

Then pitching away in half-flight,

Lighter than finches…

Influence and Reputation
Roethke remains one of the most distinguished and widely read American poets of the twentieth century. He influenced many subsequent poets including Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and James Dickey. Clive James was not a fan. “It should be obvious by now that the general critical view of Roethke has not a great deal to do with poetry, and everything to do with his efforts (heroic efforts, considering what he went through: but heroism is a term of accentuation, not necessarily of approval) to get established as a poet, to Make It… It seems probable that in Roethke’s case the general critical view has followed the lead of his fellow poets, who simply liked him, just as much as it has followed the lead of industrious scholarship, which finds his work such a luxuriant paradise of exfoliating symbols.” Other critic share James’s view that “Roethke’s incipient individuality as a voice was successively broken down by a series of strong influences – from the close of the thirties these were, roughly in order: Auden, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot again.”

Roethke himself was not ashamed of echoing other poets and indeed revelled in it. He gave a piece of advice regarding influence: ”don’t fret too much about being ‘influenced’ but make sure you chew up your old boy with a vengeance, blood, guts and all.” In 1959, he wrote an essay in the Yale Review called, “How to Write Like Somebody Else”. In that, he described his relation to WB Yeats in terms of “daring to compete with papa.” He boldly quotes his own poems and prompts criticism by blatantly saying who influenced them. He even points out his own “blunders”. James calls some of Roethke’s work “sub-Auden” but Roethke describes Auden’s own “pillaging”, describing him as “a real magpie with a cormorant’s rapacity and the long memory of the elephant”. Roethke’s drive to master his precursors led him to literary innovations that were his own.

“There is no poetry anywhere,” James Dickey wrote in the Atlantic (Nov. 1968), “that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke’s; no poetry that can place the body in an environment.”

John Berryman shared Roethke’s problems with manic depression and alcohol. They did not always get on but there was mutual respect as well as rivalry. Berryman outlived Roethke but eventually gave in and jumped off a bridge. In the New York Review of Books dated October 17 1963, Berryman published a moving tribute entitled “A Strut for Roethke”.

Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost
across the Sound but north from Bremerton,
hit a way down note.
And never cadenza again of flowers, or cost.
Him who could really do that cleared his throat
and staggered on.

The bluebells, pool-shallows, saluted his over-needs,
while the clouds growled, heh-heh, & snapped & crashed.

needing a lower into friendlier ground
to bug among worms no more
around our jungles where us blurt ‘What for?’
Weeds, too, he favoured as most men don’t favour men.



Richard Murphy

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 19 2014

Colman's Column3

The distinguished Irish poet, Richard Murphy, spent a great deal of his childhood in Ceylon where his father, Sir William Lindsay Murphy, was the last colonial Mayor of Colombo. Richard first went to Ceylon at the age of six weeks. He made many visits to this country over the years and, according to Wikipedia, lives here now. Ashley Halpé’s translations inspired Murphy to write The Mirror Wall, versions of poems inscribed on a long wall of polished plaster at Sigiriya. Bloodaxe Books published the book in 1989 and it won the Poetry Book Society Translation Award.


Murphy’s autobiography, The Kick, reveals that he was in Sri Lanka during some troubled times for the nation. In 1971, HAI Goonetileke, librarian of Peradeniya University had invited him thus: “The son of your father will be welcome in this still resplendent isle”. However, the first JVP uprising had deterred Murphy from taking up the offer. Murphy notes that news of bodies floating down the Kalani River under the Victoria Bridge on the airport road brought back a childhood terror of dying in Ceylon.

News of the July 1983 pogrom, which was, at best, badly mishandled by the UNP government,   troubled him.  Murphy hints that the pogrom was orchestrated by a UNP cabinet minister but does not name him. DBS Jeyaraj names Cyril Mathew and writes about violent groups that “had absolute impunity and had the protection of important members of the United National Party (UNP) Government then in power.” Jeyaraj also wrote: “Many of the mobs were led by functionaries of the UNP trade union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS). Several UNP municipal and urban councillors were involved. Many prominent supporters and strong – arm men of cabinet ministers were involved. The Police were ordered by UNP politicians not to arrest the violent elements.”

Despite his fears, Murphy decided to return, in November 1984, to the country that was by then called Sri Lanka, “intending to examine my colonial past in the light of its legacy and to purge my fear”. He had planned to spend his time wandering around Colombo, Kandy and Bandarawela on his own, “surprising myself with spontaneous recollections…” However, his mother had insisted on getting introductions through the High Commission and, on arrival, the Tourist Board took the Murphys under its wing and arranged for them to meet President Jayewardene. On meeting the president, the 86-yer-old Lady Murphy said: “we were barbarians when you had a great civilisation at Anuradhapura.” Dickie replied, “Yes, but a long time ago you overtook us.”

Murphy’s driver, Samson, pointed out Welikade Prison and said, “That’s where more than fifty Tamil detainees were killed during the riots”. Murphy and his mother chided him for spoiling the journey. Samson replied: “One hundred per cent terrorists”. A year later, the prison director gave Murphy a guided tour and showed him the woodshed from which guards allowed Sinhalese prisoners to take saws and axes with which they broke down Tamil prisoners’ cell doors and hacked them to death.

In Kandy, Murphy and his mother visited the house on Brownrigg Street, which was her first home in the country in October 1922. The street was named after Robert Brownrigg the “butcher of Uva-Wellassa”, who issued a gazette notice condemning as “traitors” all those who rebelled against British Rule. (President Rajapaksa revoked the gazette notice in 2011.)  Sentries from the Sinha Regiment commanded by Major Nihal Pelpola guarded Lady Murphy’s former home. In 1989, Murphy visited Colonel Pelpola in Colombo General Hospital where he was in intensive care after a member of the JVP stabbed him in the back on Galle Face Green
On the 1984 trip, they travelled from Kandy to Trincomalee via Dambulla, passing several army checkpoints en route. Murphy noticed a line of chained prisoners accompanied by police. The Tamil wife of an Anglican rector said these were young Tamil boys being taken to be castrated.

A Tamil man in his thirties called Stephen Anthony, who had lost his livelihood because of the pogrom, guided Murphy around Colombo. According to him, sites belonging to Tamil professionals had been given away to enrich UNP supporters after the Tamil owners had fled from the looting.

Murphy’s former pupil, April Brunner, was now the wife of Britain’s High Commissioner, David Gladstone who invited him to many social functions over the next three years. Gladstone told him that he was inundated with visa requests because of fears that the JVP would soon take over the country and install a Pol Pot-type regime. The JVP had forced schools to close and intimidated many employees to stay away from work.

On December 19, the UNP’s Ranasinghe Premadasa became  president after an election dominated, according to Murphy, by fraud and JVP intimidation. Murphy’s barber, Wasantha, was hacked to death by the JVP near the Ladyhill Hotel and the JVP gave detailed instructions about how to conduct the funeral. On 22 January 1989, Murphy noted in his diary that the body of an old man was floating in Kandy Lake just in front of the Hotel Suisse and that the hotel telephone operator could not get anyone in the police department to take an interest. Murphy himself disturbed the DIG at his lunch and eventually seven armed police arrived. “Why bring such weaponry on a mission to remove a dead body from a temple lake in a sacred area in which it is prohibited to catch fish? Because the police are afraid of being shot at by subversives wherever they happen to go.”

When Murphy returned to Sri Lanka in November 1989 after a few months in Ireland, he found that the JVP had closed all the hospitals and fifty cancer patients had died without medical or nursing assistance. When the hospitals reopened, a child’s body was found stuck to a bed. JVP leader Rohana Wijiweera sent out a “request” to soldiers to desert. The request was backed up by a threat to kill their families. The police and army responded by liquidating anyone remotely suspected of JVP connections. A friend told Murphy that he had personally counted 300 bodies floating down the Kelani River. People stopped eating fish. Rohan Guneratna told Murphy that up to 60,000 “suspects”, mainly young men, had been taken by special units and summarily executed. Guneratna saw, with his own eyes, beside the road leading down from Heeragilla, bodies that had been burnt on tyres.

Wijiweera was captured living in bourgeois comfort in a planter’s house near Kandy and questioned for 72 hours by intelligence officers. The version of Wijiweera’s death accepted by Murphy is that he was thrown alive into the crematorium near Colombo golf course. Asoka Ratwatte, a cousin of Sirimavo Bandaranaike told Murphy he was convinced that the army was killing people with no connection to the JVP: “Now they are decorating trees in my village with chopped off hands and feet.”

Tissa Wijeyratne, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to France, told Murphy: “In Colombo the municipal crematorium works all night long…Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the rural areas approve the beating and killing of JVP suspects. I saw three corpses hung from an electric transformer, multiple injuries, holes in the head. My first reaction was immediate fear, that this could happen to me, not moral horror.”

SB Dissanayake told Murphy that he had been on a bus, when the driver slowed down to let the passengers see many bodies of young men and women, all stripped to the waist, by the roadside. Mothers held up their children so that they could see. Dissanayake also saw, at the temples at Lankatilleke, dismembered bodies lying under a tree. “Dogs eat the flesh that isn’t burnt by the tyres set alight under the corpses that are strewn along the roads at night.”

Murphy met Major Asoka Amunugama of the Sinha regiment at the bungalow where Sir William and Lady Murphy had lived soon after their marriage. The Major did not deny that atrocities were occurring but blamed vigilante groups rather than the Army. He agreed that the UNP government fully supported these groups and would have a problem controlling them. He admitted that he thought a military victory would never solve the problems caused by poverty and frustrated youth.

Anuradha Seneviratna, Professor of Sinhala at Peradeniya had told Murphy that many of his students had been taken by the Army. He said his fifteen-year old son had not been able to eat or sleep after seeing a body burning on a tyre but eventually got used to seeing many of them and no longer got upset. A JVP man had shot dead the bursar of the university and escaped on a bicycle. The Army went on a rampage and the next morning there were fourteen severed heads with battered faces on the parapet wall around the lotus pond and fourteen butchered torsos in a secluded part of the campus.

When he visited Sri Lanka in December 1991, Murphy was disappointed that the Gladstones had been ejected from the country by President Premadasa because the British High Commissioner had complained about election fraud perpetrated by the UNP.  Murphy wrote, “I felt that the country I loved was being changed for the worse” by this president. In 1993, Premadasa, the UNP president who had supplied arms and funding to the LTTE, was killed by a Tiger suicide bomber.

As I have said before in these pages, as a foreigner, I have absolutely no emotional attachment to the UNP or the SLFP. Nevertheless, it surprises me to hear my UNP friends wax nostalgic about the good old days before Mahinda Rajapaksa became president. I have heard from these very people horror stories about the JVP times, similar to those recounted by Richard Murphy. To hear my UNP friends speak, Sri Lanka today is unprecedentedly awful. This is the worst of all times. It seems from my compatriot’s observations that unimaginable horrors occurred under UNP administrations. Are similar horrors prevalent today? To this Irishman who has lived in Sri Lanka for twelve years, life is far more comfortable, if a good deal more expensive than when he first arrived. On arrival, in January 2001, I was disconcerted that, under a UNP government, military roadblocks were such a normal part of life that they were sponsored by commercial advertisers. There are no roadblocks today. I have not seen any bodies burning on tyres. Even up here in the mountains, roads have improved greatly and facilities in our small town are better by far. More importantly, I can stroll around Colombo without fear of being blown up. Whatever about crime rates, I do not see hundreds of corpses floating down the river.

I understand that Richard Murphy, who is now in his 87th year, currently lives permanently in Sri Lanka. Can we assume that that Irishman, like this Irishman, believes the country he loved, “this resplendent isle”, whatever its many faults, has changed for the better?

If anyone can tell me the whereabouts of Richard Murphy please contact me at

Living beyond my Outstation

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 24 2014



Colman's Column3

Most capital cities of centralised nations draw life from the provinces. What shocked me was that Colombans call any area that is not Colombo “outstation”.

Here in Uva we have been getting some unusual attention because of the Provincial Council election. Colombo journalists ventured out of their comfort zone to blink at the Uva natives like anthropologists discovering strange indigenous tribes previously hidden from civilisation.

I upset a few people on Facebook recently. I was responding to an article about the takeover of Odels by Softlogic. I wondered if the elderly ladies queuing up for water during our prolonged drought would be spending much time thinking about Otara as a model entrepreneur and philanthropist. Surveys conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics show that poverty has increased in Uva Province despite poverty in Sri Lanka as a whole having significantly declined. According to those statistics, Moneragala is the poorest district and Siyambalanduwa in Moneragala is the poorest DS Division.

I commented on Facebook: “So much about Sri Lanka is Colombo only. There is a whole different universe out here that you Colombians have no conception of. Colombo is a different country entirely from the rest of Sri Lanka.” One commenter accused me of “latent anger and simmering animosity”. “Try not to let your ‘anti-Colombo’ sentiment blind you to the positive energies that abound, yes, even here in Colombo! Otara and Odel are iconic not because of their business value or cash count – but because they proved that a dream, with hard work and acumen, can become more than just a reality.”

Well- good luck with that!

Metropole versus Province

There is a tendency in most nations for the capital city to drain life and people from the rest of the country. South Korea has a population of 50 million. The capital Seoul has a population of 9.8 million. The Seoul National Capital Area, which is smaller than London, has 24.5 million inhabitants making it the world’s second largest metropolitan area and easily the most densely populated city in the OECD. Metropolitan Tokyo is large enough be a G20 economy if it were an independent country. Cities like Paris and Istanbul dominate the economies of their respective countries as well. All capital cities in Europe countries with centralised government are growing similarly. London started from a larger base.

The Great Wen

William Cobbett (1763 – 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer and journalist. He called London “the great wen”. A wen is a benign encysted tumour of the skin containing sebaceous matter. “BUT, what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, the metropolis of the empire?” The view that London, far from being a glittering metropolis, is in fact the source of provincial Britain’s woes persists today. Today, even a government minister, Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, warns that London is “becoming a giant suction machine, draining the life out of the rest of the country”.

In its annual “health check” of British cities, the think-tank The Centre for Cities shows that the gap is widening between the capital and other major centres of population. Eighty-thousand people in the 22- to 30- age group moved to London between 2009 and 2013, compared with 31,600 who left London – a net inflow to the capital of 48,400.

Between 1997 and 2012, London’s share of Britain’s economic output grew from around 19% to around 22%. The capital’s economy sucks in workers from all over Britain—indeed, from all over the world causing great pressure on housing.

I recently published an article about London being voted the top crap town in Britain. Rich financiers and Russian kleptocrats have made London unaffordable for the working class. One reader, who lives in Derbyshire, commented: “For most British people, London is foreign; your piece highlights some of the reasons. Since London is the seat of central government, this entails the feeling among many of us that we’re being governed by a foreign power, remote from our concerns. This intuition is relevant to the support for Scottish independence and, on a ‘lower’ level, for the rising dissatisfaction with Westminster in northern England”.

Uva must be a foreign country to Colombans. Colombo is like a different planet for we yokels.


Dublin is the nerve centre and the control focus of nearly every aspect of Irish life. Because the country is small, not mountainous and has good straight roads, many people commute daily to the capital from all over Ireland to work in Dublin.

The poet Kevin Higgins, who is from Galway, which has distinctive character of its own and a fine arts and culture scene, paints a picture of Dublin somewhat similar to my view of Colombo. This Dublin is epitomised by celebrity philanthropists and self-publicists Bono and Bob Geldof. Kevin resented Geldof’s intervention in the Scottish independence debate. “Apologies to the people of Scotland for Bob Geldof’s jaded ramblings. He represents no one in Ireland. When you vote on Thursday, as my mother used to say, ‘don’t mind that fella’”.

Kevin suggests creating a new republic: “Perhaps the Republic of Ireland should give enforced independence to South County Dublin. … No more Bono or Sir Bob… They could live in their own little country of South County Dublin, with a permanent Fine Gael majority government and fly the Union Jack all they want”.

Is Otara the Bono or bob Geldof of Sri Lanka? Rock musician Julian Cope said: “One of the problems with Bono and Bob Geldof’s view of the world is that they are ultimately Dublin Irish. The Dublin Irish are a kind of Viking landed gentry who can’t stand the rest of Ireland. I think one of the reasons those two charge around trying to save Africa is so that they don’t have to hang around in Ireland.”


In the UK, towns that thrived because of heavy industry now have no jobs at all or precariat jobs like call centres. There have been attempts to transfer government departments out of London. Radical suggestions have been made that the capital should me moved to Manchester or Middlesbrough. Those in the commentariat who like living in London and do not want to be transferred out to the wilderness suggest that people in distressed areas should come to London for work. People may be willing to do the shortish trip from Peterborough to Kings Cross every morning even though it is very expensive. Doing a three-hour journey from Middlesbrough to London every morning would be impossible and train fares are prohibitive.

The majority of people in Scotland may have voted to stay in the UK but 44.7% voted for independence. Talk to anyone in towns and cities in the north of England and you will not hear much affection for London or Londoners. Come to Uva province and you will not hear much affection for Colombo.

In its report, Cities Outlook 2014, it says there are “green shoots” of recovery in places other than London. It names Edinburgh as the second most successful city in generating private-sector jobs, followed by Birmingham and Manchester. It calls for major cities to have more power and funding devolved to them. The Centre argues that Greater Manchester and Greater Leeds each produce more than the entire Welsh economy, but have none of the powers enjoyed by the Cardiff Assembly. Devolution of power in Sri Lanka is a contentious issue.

Like other capital cities across the world, Colombo, gets its strength from many diverse and talented people being located together. The infrastructure throughout the country has improved greatly but it would not be possible, because of the terrain, to commute daily from “outstation” to Colombo. Travelling by train in Sri Lanka is still an endurance test. The answer must be continuing infrastructure improvements in the rest of the country and devolving power and resources. The biggest hurdle is to change the mindset of Colombo dwellers so that they remember that there is a whole country out there containing 18,170,191 fellow Sri Lankans.

I used to love Odels and I admire Otara. I love Colombo and will probably end up living happily there when I am too old to cope with the rigours of “outstation” life. I have lived in Ireland and England and in those countries too there is a huge divide between the metropolis and the rest of the country. Not as strong as in Sri Lanka. London is a foreign country to someone living in Yorkshire. London is a country on its own dominated by financiers.

I hear there will be a presidential election next January. Despite the drop in UPFA support in the Uva Provincial Council election, the insular mind set of Colombans will prevent Ranil Wickremasinghe standing a chance against Mahinda Rajapaksa.



Sri Lanka’s PR Part1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 3 2014

Colman's Column3

One often reads horror stories about Sri Lanka in the foreign press. Despite the vast amounts of money paid to foreign public relations firms, these stories are never effectively countered. There was a recent example in the Calgary Herald.

Black July

Sri Lankans will not need to be reminded of the horrors of Black July 1983 but my foreign readers may not know the significance of the term. Many Tamils had felt that Sinhalese dominated governments had discriminated against the Tamil minority. Over many years, there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) killed thirteen soldiers of the Sri Lanka Army. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property destroyed and up to 3,000 people killed and 200,000 displaced.

From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The occupants were doused in petrol and set alight.

A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.

These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford it fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

The Memory Lingers On

According to the Calgary Herald, one family in particular is still enduring horrific suffering because of those events of 31 years ago. In an article by Manisha Krishnan dated August 25 2014, Ryan de Hoedt claims that his family has been troubled since Black July because they gave shelter to Tamils from the murderous mobs. He has, reportedly, been trying to get his sister out of Sri Lanka and into Canada because he fears for her life.

He says that his grandmother used their house to shelter Tamils, hiding them in closets and under beds and this “fuelled suspicions of an association with the Tamil Tigers.” He claims that his father lost his job because of this and police bullied his parents and brother.

Carmen Cheung, a lawyer with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association told the Calgary Herald: “Here is a man who is trying to help his sister get out of what appears to be an incredibly dangerous situation”.

Sheltering Tamils

De Hoedt’s family are Burghers. Many Sinhalese and Burghers and Muslims took great personal risks to protect Tamils who were being victimized and brutally killed. The article does not give his sister’s name or age. Ryan himself was eleven years old at the time of Black July. I suspect that his sister was even younger. I find it difficult to believe that a Burgher woman living in Sri Lanka in 2014 would be in “an incredibly dangerous situation” because of her tangential involvement when she was a small child in incidents that happened 31 years ago.

I personally know Sinhalese people who sheltered Tamils in 1983. They may have been in danger then from the bloodthirsty mob itself and their courageous action is to be commended. I doubt if they feel any sense of danger of recrimination 31 years on.


I canvassed opinion about the Calgary Herald article among my many Sri Lankan contacts, in Sri Lanka and abroad. One, who is a Sinhalese Christian, told me: “There were many people like my family who helped Tamils in Sri Lanka during and after the 1983 riots. There are people I know who represent Tamils in human rights cases. Some of them are my friends. No authority has ever attacked them. …. The writer of this article is delusional. Maybe she has got the country wrong or she is a downright liar.”

Another respondent referred me to an article on Munchhausen’s Syndrome: “a psychiatric factitious disorder wherein those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention, sympathy, or reassurance to themselves”.

Here is a selection of other responses: “sounds like a lot of de Bull to me”. “Not really believing what I’m reading.” “I saw it but am at something of a loss. Doesn’t quite make sense”. “Good grief. Why would she be in any danger?” “A sob story if ever there was one”. “It all sounds very strange”.

My list of contacts included many who have been strongly critical of the Sri Lankan government- in print as well as privately.

Some respondents wrote at more length:

“I met a Sinhalese guy back in around 2008 who was trying to get refugee status here in Australia on humanitarian grounds…His story was that his family owned a successful business that had some branches in the North-East, and during the ceasefire the LTTE extorted money from them. After the war started again in 2006, he alleged that the govt started harassing and threatening him and his family because the LTTE had forced them to ‘donate’ money … When I asked him if it was true, he seemed very reticent and mumbled ‘Yes’ after thinking about it. I met his lawyer as well … he was advising the guy to tell the Immigration Dept that he was tortured and he told him to be convincing about it in his body language. The fellow cut off all contact with me shortly afterwards and I haven’t heard from him since.”

Another Riot

Some of my respondents seized upon another aspect of Manisha Krishnan’s article. “A few years ago, said de Hoedt, her tenants were implicated in a riot and she was charged with harbouring terrorists. She lost her job and was stalked by soldiers and villagers, who cut off her hair, beat her and repeatedly attempted to rape her.” My contacts reacted thus: “Sounds more like they have some kind of land dispute or something like that.” What riot? What terrorists? Sounds like a cooked up sob story.”

Visa Applications

According to Manisha Krishnan’s article, Ryan de Hoedt: “claims her seven attempts to obtain a visitor’s visa to Canada and a permanent residency application made through her parents on humanitarian grounds were all rejected”. Two things are being mixed up here. Was she refused a visitor’s visa seven times? Application for permanent residency is a totally different thing and should not be included in the same sentence. The rejections were not the fault of the Sri Lanka government. The article does not tell us why the Canadian government rejected seven applications. The article does say: “She didn’t apply for refugee status because she was afraid to leave the country, which is one of the requirements.” Why was she afraid to leave Sri Lanka when her brother claims she is in mortal danger if she stays?

Human Smuggling

Ryan de Hoedt has lost his own Canadian passport. In April 2013, he was caught in Japan trying to help his sister to enter Canada using false documents. Although at one point de Hoedt says his sister was afraid to leave Sri Lanka, she did meet her brother in Malaysia and got involved with a human smuggling gang who took the sister’s Sri Lankan passport. They ordered de Hoedt to meet them in Laos where they were to provide the sister with a fake Canadian passport. Ryan and his sister were stopped while boarding a flight in Tokyo’s Narita Airport and the sister was sent back to Sri Lanka.

One of my respondents said: “Maybe if they had resorted to legal means more thoroughly they could have gotten the chance. But since they messed up they are cooking up vivid stories and putting the country’s reputation at risk! But if there is such local problem of harassment it must be duly investigated by local authorities.”

I hesitated to write this article in case it might put de Hoedt’s sister in more danger. “The police warned her they would kill her the next time she did something,” said de Hoedt. However, I have done no more than repeat what de Hoedt himself has placed in the public domain through the Calgary Herald.

I searched the BCCLA web site for Ryan de Hoedt but got this response: “Apologies, but no results were found for the requested archive.”

The full article can be read here:

I wrote to Manisha Krishnan giving her an opportunity to comment on what I have written here. At the time of submitting my copy, she had not replied. I will take up this issue again next week and will report her response if she has made one. I would also be interested to see comments from the Sri Lanka police.

End this Child Abuse Now

Colman's Column3Vehicle emissions.

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday February 26 2014

I have enjoyed a generally friendly relationship with the Sri Lankan police. I shared the platform with one local OIC at a school prize-giving ceremony and entertained another in my home. I used to get on well with the local Inspector in charge of traffic but they transferred him. Cynics might say the Sri Lankan police treat me with respect  because I have a pink skin and am relatively affluent. I do not really blame those police officers who recently confiscated our licence on two occasions within a couple of weeks. The first time was because were parked on a pavement. Three-wheelers took up every available space in town – but more about that in another article. The second time was because our motor insurance certificate was not in the car. It was at home because I had renewed it that very day. I renew it on time every year. I renew my tax disc on time every year after taking the annual emission test. I am pathologically law-abiding.

The third time they stopped us, they did not impose a spot fine or impound the licence. On all three occasions, there was no prior cause for stopping us. We were not driving erratically or fast. The car was in good condition and had no characteristics that would attract attention. The vehicle was not belching out black fumes. While the police officers were detaining us, many vehicles passed that were emitting horrendous fumes. The officers did not appear to notice this.

I commend the Government for introducing a vehicle emission testing system in 2008. It started in the Western Province and is now a fully-fledged system covering the whole country.

Why is it not working?

Back in 2011, I was late for a meeting in Colombo at the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) because a police officer stopped the hired van in which I was travelling. The officer was quite correct to do this because the driver was talking on his mobile phone while driving. Again this could be the subject for another article – why is talking while driving so prevalent? I left the vehicle to walk hurriedly to my appointment. While walking, I noticed a number of officers whose uniform bore the legend “Environmental Police”.

Apparently, the government established Environmental Police Units in 2011 to cover every police division of the island. They are staffed 24 hours a day to handle public complaints related to environmental issues and “provide a valuable service to speedily resolve such matters”. Officers are trained on various aspects connected to the environment, including the National Environmental Act, the Mines and Mineral Act, biodiversity, noise and air pollution, waste management, the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, and the Urban Development Authority Act.

If this is so, why are there so many vehicles emitting noxious fumes?

When we first arrived in Sri Lanka from Ireland, where air pollution in the sparsely populated rural area in which we lived was mainly methane from eructating cows and sheep, we were struck by how bad the emissions were on Sri Lankan roads. After a couple of years, there was a marked and mysterious improvement but now it is very bad again. It actually seems to have worsened since emission testing was introduced.

When I arrived, coughing and breathless, at my meeting at EFL, I shared my observation that emissions were worse. The EFL people doubted that what I said was true. They said the statistics showed that emissions had reduced. I remained dogged in my scepticism as my senses gave the lie to their assertion. I noted that one of the companies conducting emission testing sponsored the EFL calendar.

Just before our vehicle was due to take its first emission test, I was concerned when a routine check showed an oil leak. The manager of the garage doing the check told me not to worry as I could just give the tester Rs 300 and all would be well. The Island reported on October 14 2011 that “sources “ said centres run by one particular company often violated rules and passed vehicles in bad condition. The DMT (Department of Motor Transport) closed over 300 centres for not meeting standards, for issuing false certificates, or for soliciting bribes.

There are 1.9 million vehicles in Sri Lanka. A WHO report shows pollution levels to be three times the accepted safe norm. Heart attacks and respiratory disease have become the main causes of death in Sri Lanka. Toxic chemicals stimulate the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues. Nitrogen dioxide can lead to immunosuppression. Carbon monoxide poisoning is like suffocation, binding to the haemoglobin contained in red blood cells, reducing  the ability of the cells to transport and release oxygen to bodily  tissues.  Benzene suppresses bone marrow and impairs development of red blood cells leading to cytopenia, bone marrow loss and leukaemia. Polycyclic hydrocarbons cause skin and lung cancers. Increasing levels of air pollution are associated with rising mortality rates among diabetics.

The government promised roadside tests in January 2011. I have not noticed them yet. They are clearly not working. DMT Commissioner General S H Harishchandra said detecting teams are operating daily to apprehend errant drivers. He claimed that these teams select random areas and conduct checks using state of the art equipment. The vehicles that have excessive emission levels are given a concessionary period to fix their engines and reduce the emission levels before ia fine is imposed. If this is really happening, why are emissions getting worse?

Sri Lanka imported 45 gas analyser machines from Germany, at a cost of nearly Rs. 50 million, to conduct comprehensive roadside inspections independent of the two private companies Cleanco and Laugfs Ecosri that carry out mandatory annual emission tests on vehicles. The Island reported that AW Dissanayake, Project Director for emission testing at the DMT,  “maintained that they were catching belching vehicles, but when asked to give details of the vehicles they had detected, he was evasive and requested us to meet the Commissioner General of Motor Traffic.”

Expensive equipment should not be necessary. Nothing more state-of-the-art than a police officer’s nose and eyes is required. The black smoke should be obvious to anyone. One sees many police officers on the roads, stopping three-wheelers and motorcycles to check licences.  My experience suggests that targets have been set to encourage police to issue more tickets and collect more spot fines. Could their performance indicators not focus on emissions? Perhaps there could be financial incentives.

Many of the major polluters are vehicles whose owners are in a position to be strongly  influenced  by government. On Friday 27 January 2012, I was enveloped in the worst black cloud I have ever experienced. The guilty vehicle was a police jeep. Police should be stopping buses, SLT vans, CEB lorries, ambulances that are spouting diesel fumes. If the police are not up to the job, perhaps the Army could do it.

The Commissioner of Motor Traffic has announced that from March 2014, vehicle owners will have pass two emission tests every year rather than one. This seems to be directed at increasing revenue rather than decreasing emissions. It is a pointless and expensive inconvenience to subject the owners of relatively new vehicles to two tests a year, while buses, the main polluters, are exempt from testing altogether.

Your taxes are funding the emissions testing programme. It needs to be effective. Young lives are at risk. Children are especially susceptible to air pollution because they have high inhalation rates, greater lung surface area per body weight, and narrow lung airways. Their immune systems are not fully developed. The main source of air pollution that is causing significant harm to children is vehicle emissions. Most schools are alongside roads and around five million of the 20-odd million population of Sri Lanka are schoolchildren. Do the traffic police, the environmental police, Commissioner of Motor Traffic, the bus operators, not have any anxiety about this persistent child abuse?

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