A step into troubled waters

January 14, 2000

Study of Sri Lankan reservoirs exposes David Simon to a critical week in a

war-torn country going to the polls.

My flight from Heathrow touches down in Colombo at 3.30am for a week's research co-ordination visit for a European Union-funded project on sustainable reservoir fisheries development.

The timing is unfortunate: arrangements were already made when Sri Lanka's presidential election was called for December 21 and other commitments prevented me from rescheduling. Fighting between the army and the Tamil Tigers in the north of the island has escalated and individual acts of terror had occurred in Colombo and elsewhere.

A baggage delay turns out to be fortuitous, as my local colleague's research assistant, sent to fetch me, says there had been a bomb attack near Colombo during the night and a curfew had been imposed. However, it was lifted at 5am, so we could travel into town.

There had actually been two suicide bomb attacks, first at the final meeting of the opposition United National Party, in which ten people, including the main speaker and a prominent leader, former general Lucky Algema, were killed. Fifteen minutes later, a second attack occurred at the end of president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's final rally for the People's Alliance at the town hall. She escaped with relatively minor eye and facial injuries. Twenty-three others, including her driver, bodyguards and the Colombo police chief, died along with the suicide bomber.

Surprisingly there is no tension in the air - just talk of relief that the president had survived and concern at what new wave of communal violence might have been triggered had she been killed. I am staying round the corner from the town hall; the road is barricaded and guarded by armed police and soldiers, as is the private hospital nearby where the president was admitted. Elsewhere it feels like a normal Sunday.

The following morning's rush hour is its normal fume-choking self. The news is dominated by accounts of the assassination attempt and a statement from the president that she is well and appealing for calm and unity. A picture of the severed head of the suicide bomber is on the back page of the pro-government Daily News, intact, eyes closed, a serene expression in death, her long black plaited hair neatly held in place by a crocodile clip. Beneath the photo is an appeal for help in identifying her. Within hours, she had been.

Kelaniya University is quiet - the long vacation, people heading home to vote in their home districts. At 10pm everyone at my host's dinner party gathers round the television to watch a broadcast by the president. She looks remarkably "together": just a small white bandage below her damaged right eye and an even smaller one on her hairline. Calm, deliberate, but clearly emotional, she delivers a tour de force that should go down in the annals of states(wo)manship.

She points out that she is the first incumbent Sri Lankan head of state to survive an assassination attempt - surely an omen; the tide is turning. She appeals for an end to terrorism, for a rejection of ethnic and religious chauvinism, and particularly warns that Tamils should not be victimised. Her political speech is right up there with the best I have heard.

All day people have been talking of a sympathy vote. A couple of academics I know confided earlier that they would now vote for her - the only truly non-ethnically chauvinistic leader. If she wins and manages to resolve the conflict, there will surely be a Nobel Peace Prize waiting.

On election day, everyone votes early. The campus is deserted, and most shops close by early afternoon in expectation of an overnight curfew after polling ends at 4pm.

The radio reports isolated threats or violent incidents but overall calm. Turnout is a record 75 per cent - the bombs are felt to have jolted potential abstainers to vote. No curfew is imposed until late at night, but the city centre is deserted.

Early results give Mrs Kumaratunga a lead. At dawn the curfew is lifted. Election results trickle in - a mixed picture, with Tamil-dominated areas in the north and east generally favouring the UNP's Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mrs Kumaratunga wins in the south and many western and central areas, including metro Colombo. She eventually wins by 51 per cent to Wickremesinghe's 42 per cent and the chauvinist Singhalese JVP candidate's 4 per cent. Six deaths are reported, along with various attempts by UNP supporters to enter polling booths with guns and explosives; in turn the UNP allege PA intimidation and other malpractices. Yet international observers are generally well satisfied.

On the way to a reservoir in the southern interior all seems quiet, although a victory parade is forming up in one town. We wonder what new violence that might provoke in an island so clearly divided against itself. On balance, my colleagues agree that the outcome is as good as could be expected.

In rural areas there is no sign of post-election fever or fervour. The president has already been sworn in for her second term the previous day. Now the talk is all conciliatory - Mrs Kumaratunga invited Ranil Wickremesinghe to join the government in an effort to forge a bipartisan approach to peace and faster economic growth. He says he will consider this, despite reservations about the election conduct.

Back in Colombo a squad of men squats on the town hall lawn, combing the ground for evidence after the bomb attack and cleaning up. Municipal workers have started scraping election posters off roadside walls and the plastic bunting is coming down. Security around the airport has been stepped up, while heavy machine guns point at oncoming vehicles from camouflaged emplacements. Inside, the airport is an oasis of cleancut modernity, a window to the world beyond.

David Simon is professor of development geography at Royal Holloway,

University of London.

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