Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Getting Death off our Roads Part 1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday May 22 2015

 

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Two Boys

Several years ago, we became integrated into our local community because of tragedy. We were invited to a funeral house and were introduced to many of our fellow villagers and many bhikkhus. The dead young man had just won a place at an Australian university and was looking forward to a successful career in IT. He was to be best man at his friend’s wedding the next day. The two boys had been born on the same day and had been friends all their short lives. Born on the same day and died on the same day. They were on a motor bike going to Passara to do some last minute shopping when they encountered an out-of-control bus. The driver was in a hurry to overtake and the boys were killed instantly. Last minutes of promising lives. The parents were mad with grief. The father suddenly became an old man as all the hope and joy drained out of him.

Rich Countries, Poor Countries

Worldwide, there is a road accident death every 30 seconds and ten people are seriously injured. The WHO (World Health Organisation) expects the number of deaths to reach two million a year by 2030, up from 1.3m now. In poor and middle-income countries road deaths will match HIV/AIDS as a cause of death by 2030. In the very poorest, the WHO expects deaths almost to triple.

The rich countries have cut road deaths through higher vehicle standards and infrastructure investment. Simple and cheap safety measures also helped. Pavements and crossings were provided on roads used by pedestrians. Cyclists and pedestrians were separated from fast traffic. Governments enforced speeding and drunk-driving laws and hammered home the message about seat belts, helmets and mobile phones.

Canvassing for Ideas

On May 5 2015, I published an article in this paper about the carnage on Sri Lankan roads. I was particularly concerned about the reckless behaviour of bus drivers and the reluctance of traffic police to address that behaviour. After publication, I canvassed the opinion of many Sri Lankans at home and abroad.

One commenter told how his neighbour was driving carefully but was killed when a bus coming from behind chose the wrong time to overtake her. He had not seen the lorry coming towards him. When did see the lorry, he quickly cut back into his lane, crushing the lady’s car in the process as she did not have time to take evasive action, stop or slow down.  She died on the spot. Even taking short journeys to do local shopping I witness many similar incidents and always feel lucky to get home alive. The sixteen-hour round trip to Colombo is a nightmare. You are not even safe if you stay indoors at home. On one Colombo trip, we saw a bus on its nose end in someone’s bedroom.

The response to my canvas was extremely impressive. In these follow-up articles, I will try to synthesise the astute comments about the cause of the problem and suggestions for possible practical solutions.

Privatisation

Private bus drivers behave more irresponsibly than drivers of other buses. It was ever thus. Before nationalisation, free market competition for the same routes caused a scramble for passengers, leading to brawls and stabbings.

The Ratnam Survey in 1948, the Sansoni Survey in 1954 and the Jayaratna Perera Survey in 1956 all concluded that nationalisation would bring a better service. Between 1958 and 1978, the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) was the nationalised enterprise providing all public bus transport in Sri Lanka. It was the largest omnibus company in the world – with about 7,000 buses and over 50,000 employees. The present number of buses in the fleet of the successor body, the SLTB, is only 4,500.

When the Premadasa government introduced privatisation, competition on the same routes returned. Currently, bus crews receive a percentage of profits so there is an incentive to overload and pick up too many passengers and run as many high-speed trips as possible.

Endemic National Character

Some of the people I canvassed cited national characteristics as part of the problem. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous – including this one”. I would be particularly wary of generalising about national character, and loth, as a guest in Sri Lanka, to pass judgement on the “Sri Lankan character”. However, my Sri Lankan friends are not so cautious. If I pointed to the success of Sweden and the Netherlands in drastically reducing road deaths, and suggest we might find some lessons, they would say one could not expect Sri Lankans to have the self-discipline of northern Europeans.

One Sri Lankan wrote: “It appears to be the dominant culture that no one is responsible or accountable for anything.”  Another concurred: “We accept chaos. If you inspect the root cause of a traffic jam in Sri Lanka, you will find that it originates in something trivial, like people lacking courtesy, blocking the whole road. There is no sense of coexistence or co-operation. It is the same in banks and post offices. No queues. Everyone wants to be served first”.

Suspension of normal rules during wartime created a pathology of circumventing sensible codes of behaviour. People see politicians bending the rules and think they can do the same. Politicians and military had special privileges, let us all have them.

Police Corruption

One commenter believed the Sri Lankan police force was corrupt and used torture as a routine procedure from its foundation in the 1860s when the force was an instrument of colonial control. It had been further “corrupted and deformed by thirty years of war”. It is now a security force and is incapable of carrying out normal police duties.

Many private buses are “owned” by police in the sense that a policeman or his relative is a silent partner of the people who operate the buses. It is a sort of protection racket; for a share of the profits, police turn a blind eye to unroadworthy vehicles and dangerous driving

One commenter was pessimistic about changing the culture because corruption ran through society right from the top. Another was more optimistic and chose to believe that not all police are corrupt and a Citizens’ Advocacy group could improve enforcement by targeting some of the more intelligent senior officers.

Impunity of Culprits

One respondent thought there were simple solutions available but the state had to be prepared to stand up to the transgressors. Private buses owners have connections with powerful politicians and their stooges. Police issued a circular that the spot-fine system for private buses would be scrapped and that all offenders would be hauled before the courts. Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne threatened an island wide strike and the circular was withdrawn.

 

Private Owners Victims?

 

Although many see private bus owners as the villains, they feel like victims. In April 2013, Wijeratne was threatening a strike if private bus owners were not allowed to increase fares. He said that normal private buses were incurring losses every day.

 

In May 2005, Wijeratne blamed the high accident rate on the government’s failure to prevent competing companies from plying the same routes at the same time. “I have proposed to the government and provincial authorities to introduce a regular timetable,”

 

On April 30 2015, Gemunu Wijeratne claimed that owners are required to give a monthly sum of Rs 17 billion to extortionists. He said that even though officials have been informed of this situation, the matter has been ignored. Wijeratne said that his association had also decided to complain to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption of Minister Ratnayaka’s allegedly questionable dealings with some bus owners.

 

Next week – what can be done?

Where Are the Prosecutions, Punishments?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 25 June 2014

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On Monday 16 June 2014, I went to Badulla to take a dog to the vet. Everything seemed normal in town. I was shocked to see pictures later in the day on Asian Mirror, showing a mob stoning familiar shops on Bazaar Street. The BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) staged a protest in Badulla demanding the release of several suspects who were arrested for attacking a Muslim shop in the town a few days before. The suspects, according to Police, are members of the BBS.

This is a disturbing echo, closer to my own home, of the appalling events at Aluthgama. The Aluthgama riot and bloodshed apparently arose out of a road rage incident or a physical assault on a bhikkhu. The Badulla incident apparently arose out of a sexual harassment allegation.

The Badulla story goes that two Sinhalese girls had entered a Muslim-owned shop and asked to purchase a pair of denims. The girls then allege that the sales clerk videoed them from above the changing room using his cell phone. A variant version was that the shop owners had fixed CCTV cameras in the changing room. The girls’ father recruited a mob and stormed the shop, assaulting the salesman. Police had intervened to maintain the peace and taken the sales clerk into custody. Police investigation into the incident is in progress.

On June 20, Badulla was calm but tense. On every street there were policemen in riot helmets carrying big sticks.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote: “Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault.  What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.”

As a Guardian reader succinctly commented: “What ‘triggered the incident’ was the propensity of stupid people to believe stupid things, especially if the stupid things target a group they are predisposed to hate.” Another viewpoint is that this is becoming a common ruse adopted by extremist organisations to attack Muslim-owned businesses, and that Muslim entrepreneurs need to take adequate precautions to protect their interests. Could that lead to further violence?

These incidents reminded me of a much more serious “trigger”, even closer to my home, a couple of years ago. A Muslim youth stabbed and killed a Sinhalese boy. Their dispute was not about religion and had nothing to do with communal strife. The two boys had been firm friends since childhood. This was a crime of passion – they had fought in rivalry over the affections of a girl. Luckily, BBS were not around to exploit the incident and all sections of the local community sprang into action to dampen any sparks of conflict. All local shops closed voluntarily and the police imposed a curfew. Meetings were held between Buddhist and Muslim clerics, the families of the dead youth and his assailant and the police. There was no further violence, although one still reads about jealous husbands killing wives and vice versa.

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts abroad are bemoaning the moral turpitude of “the average Sri Lankan”. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”. I would hesitate to judge “the average Sri Lankan”. I  would like to take a more optimistic line. I do not like headlines about “communal strife”. I live in a poor village, which has many Muslims and Tamils. It sometimes feels as though the Sinhalese are the minority. I am not saying that it is an idyllic paradise. There are often disputes but they are not on an ethnic basis. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese generally get on OK and even intermarry- a woman who works for us is a Tamil married to a Muslim and they have an adopted son who is Tamil (but does not know it). We have Sinhalese workers who live in the Tamil lines. Many Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu. The broker who arranges our car insurance has a Muslim name but is a staunch Catholic. There could be harmony if the BBS would allow it.

Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese seem to get along with each other, and with the Sinhalese, and with this Irishman. Our immediate neighbours are Muslims. We were here before them. We have not always enjoyed perfect harmony- there used to be some intimidation from them and on one occasion, there was an angry mob at our gate wielding knives. They were responding to a false rumour about what we were doing with the water supply. This was the kind of thing Malinda referred to. I responded to other incidents of aggression on my neighbour’s part by presenting him with a box of avocadoes from our trees. Our sympathetic response to a couple of deaths in their family has led to a situation where we rub along generally and help each other out on occasion. As I write, their cattle are tearing at our hedge again!

We are fortunate in that the high priest of our local Buddhist temple, who has been a good friend to us for ten years, is a wise, compassionate and humorous man. Most of the people who work for him are Tamils and they worship him. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school at the temple. He regularly attends events organised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

As I write, the situation is still not clear because most of the news is coming to us from abroad and the Government is saying nothing. It seems that seven died, three of whom perished in a drive-by shooting indicating that BBS might have an armed militia. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator  owned by the Beacham group, classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts who live abroad have expressed fears that nothing has been learnt from the horror that was Black July in 1983, when Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils and sparked off a thirty-year civil war. One woman in Aluthgama was quoted in the press: “At this rate, it won’t be long before a Muslim Prabhakaran is born.”

There was one positive aspect in 1983. Many Sinhalese -and I have heard eye-witnesses reports about this – endangered themselves by having the courage to protect Tamils who were strangers to them. This time one of my Muslim contacts reports that “Buddhist work friends collected funds in an office and donated for the affected at Aluthgama. Very noble of them. Why , it’s entirely possible that BBS will lose adherents in greater numbers than gaining them. Allah Akbar!”

In Aluthgama, a Sinhalese citizen told Dharisha Bastians. “We have no grouse with the people on that side of the village. They are our friends. We know them. We didn’t recognise the people who fought last night, they were not from here”.

Encouraging news came from Dickwella. The Chief Incumbent Priests of eight Buddhist temples spent two hours at the Muhiyibdeen Jumma Mosque at Yonakpura, Dickwella. The act of solidarity was to strengthen communal ties and avert any fears of copycat incidents in the area. The clergy said that the root cause of the incidents in Aluthgama and Beruwala was misinformation and that the people of Dickwella should be vigilant about attempts to instigate communal disharmony in their town. Dickwella Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Krishali Muthukumarana said that Dickwella people have lived in harmony by respecting each other’s beliefs and customs. All the members of the PS irrespective of their political affiliations would ensure that no communal hatred was instigated.

Harendra Alwis on Groundviews explored this issue in a philosophical mode but also offered some practical advice on avoiding despair, promoting tolerance and social integration and embracing diversity. I feel a smidgeon of caution about one thing Harendra says. “Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say.” It is true that these issues have to be exposed to the cleansing sunshine and fresh air of open debate. Groundviews has an important role to play in this. There is, however, a danger that passions could be further inflamed by polemic in the social media. As Nick Hart commented on Groundviews, it is “nonsensical and irresponsible to attempt to tar all Buddhist monks with the brush of intolerance, or to imply that every individual from a minority group is an innocent victim. Sri Lanka and the world know that this is not the case.” I recall that Groundviews itself seemed to be dangerously stoking the fire in the controversy over halal products, when Sanjana Hattotuwa strained very hard to find insult to Muslims in the packaging of a certain item.

 

The use of terms like “communal strife” makes me queasy. Just like every act of communal violence in Sri Lanka’s history, the recent “riots” in Aluthgama against Muslims were not spontaneous expressions of ethnic or religious grievance involving ordinary civilians. There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. Buddhists need to convince their Muslim neighbors that BBS are not acting in their name. That, of course will be futile if the police allow BBS to continue their thuggery. Where are the prosecutions and punishments?

 

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