Colombo - 12/06/2009 - 7:30 am - Omega Inn Cafe
I glare up at the timid fan limply rotating above me with contempt. I'm sat by the window, sweating, the morning sun already beating the back of my neck into lazy submission. Dusty buses careen past outside blowing clouds of filth into my face. The fan limps on, mocking. There's a futility to it all. I'm waiting for breakfast to arrive - string-hoppers and dhal - 250 rupees from the cafe under my hotel. I'm in a bad mood and things don't feel like they are going to come good any time soon.
Little did I know that the man I was about to meet would give me and my crew unprecedented access to the final battleground in Sri Lanka's Civil War.
We arrived a week after the President had publicly declared an end to the 30 year war. The conflict had reached its bitter conclusion between the separatist LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army. Prabhakaran - the LTTE leader was dead, his cadres decimated. There had been jubilant crowds in the streets, an army parade at the beach and for a week the city celebrated. It felt like the day after a long awaited monsoon, Sri Lankan flags were scattered about the roads like puddles of relief from the week before. For the first time in a long time the country was whole again and they had their fearless leader President Rajapakse and his brother Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse to thank. They had crushed the LTTE and liberated an island drenched with blood. Terrorism had been defeated militarily for the first time in history. And now, finally, the nation had a chance to rebuild, refocus and reform. This was the story as told from the inside.
But, crucially, the cost of this 'peace' had amassed international attention. In the final days of the conflict the death toll was estimated from between 10,000 to 25,000. 300,000 civilians were displaced and were being held in IDP camps, civil liberties and human rights had come under the spotlight amidst disturbing reports of abductions and disappearances. I came to capture the moment. But after a week in the country the overriding question became not whether the defeat of terrorism could be justified given the costs, it was why no-one seemed to care now that it was over. Those questions had no place in post-war Sri Lanka. The nation was in no mood to return to the harsh realities of the means, what was important is that there was an end. The war was at an end. Sri Lanka had spent the last 30 years looking back and had been shackled to the violence of its past. Both economically, socially and politically, the country and its government had always acted within the brackets of a state of emergency. The threat of terrorism and instability had retarded the potential development of the country for a generation, so, came the answer to my questions - why not look forward for a change?
And who was I to come pointing fingers? Me, some young upstart from the diaspora. Couldn't speak a word of Sinhala, was born, educated and lived a life separate and foreign, far from the constant threat of violence so ingrained in the livelihoods of these 'real' Sri Lankans. Hell, I wasn't even a' real' journalist, in fact I hadn't even graduated yet and here I was playing intrepid reporter with a moleskin in one hand and a borrowed DV camcorder in the other. Who, then, was I to question whether it was all worth it?
Paradise, they said, had been found - no-one wanted to talk about how they got there.
It's a strange paradigm shift. When the media focussed its lenses at Sri Lanka it was perturbed by the lack of access granted to their journalists. No foreign media was allowed to cover this war. A war without witness it was called. The state of press freedom of the country's own independent media lent an increasingly disturbing angle to the situation. There had been reports of the kidnapping and killing of journalists - most notably the assassination of Lasantha Wickremetunge, editor of The Sunday Leader a paper who had openly criticised the government during wartime - a crime of sedition and treachery in the eyes of the propaganda savvy government.
Over in London, this was the story that made waves. Journalists themselves became the story and the point of contention was why the government had not allowed access to the front lines. The BBC and Channel 4 news teams had been accused of 'bringing the country into disrepute' and back came allegations of war crimes and excessive force by the army. If the government propaganda machine had been working full tilt on winning the hearts and minds of its own people, and indeed having succeeded in gaining their enthusiastic support for the war, they were desperately losing the media battle abroad - particularly in the U.K. Even, they said, Rwanda had let in journalists at the height of the conflict. Why not here? What had they to hide? In London we heard words like genocide and ethnic cleansing. The deplorable state of the IDP camps were criticized by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Sri Lanka had become one of 'those' stories and we had arrived in the wake of that storm.
We were three. My producer and camera-woman Heidi Lindvall who would organize my life for these three weeks together with my photographer friend Philip Panchenko who had flown over mid-way through a meandering sojourn through South East Asia. It soon became evident that a beautiful blonde haired, blue eyed Scandinavian and a six-foot tall white guy with a winning smile went a long way in balancing out the curious appearance as a brown man with wires sticking out of his bag. Security checkpoints were unavoidable travelling through the city. Some, we heard, were fitted with playback equipment to check the content of DV tapes by the road. We had better be careful. Even if I did use Heidi and Phil as my very own human shields, one slip up and we'd be busted. We were all intensely aware that we were supremely under qualified to be there.
A week in and we were getting nowhere fast. There were only two weeks left to get something of substance from this trip, at least something to justify the ticket prices. In desperation we had talked to a young blogger for advice. Indi.ca - the nom de-web of the founder of Sri Lanka's most popular blog aggregation site 'Kottu' - was one such sage. He was amused at our whining about how no-one got back to our e-mails and messages. 'Dude,' Indi told me, 'This is Sri Lanka. You have to do it on a machang level'.
What pray tell, was 'machang level'?
Machang Level as it turns out is a mode of communication whereby one utilizes networks of influence in order to get what one wants. The rule is simple; in Sri Lanka unless you already have influence, whatever you want done won't be done in a hurry. The trick then is to get someone who has influence to ask what you want for you - preferably someone who is on first name basis with whoever it is that can give you what you want - Machang Level. 'Machang' in Sinhala means 'buddy'.
I was instructed to figure out the quickest 'path to influence' to get what I want from whoever I want via my degrees of separation. The goal was to get someone from the government to speak to us and maybe, maybe even give us permission to film in the country. It was a tall order, apparently the only one who had that kind of authority was the Ministry of Defence. And the man who had to sign for permission was none other than the Secretary of Defence Gothabaya Rajapakse - the brother of the President himself.
That night in my hotel room I ploughed my mind for anyone who could be of any use. I called uncles and aunts who might know someone, somewhere who might work for the government - but to no avail. I was searching for anything that would help, any thread. Then I remembered something. A few weeks back I was sent an e-mail that said that a high percentage of those in the government and the army were alma-maters and all went to the same high-school - Ananda College. I wonder if I knew anyone who went to school with these Anandian war heroes? That kind of thing greases many a wheel here in Sri Lanka. I only had one uncle who was an Anandian - Uncle Dave - the rest were all staunch Royalists (Royal College). I had to find me an Anandian of influence through Uncle Dave. I called him. No luck, the only other Anandian he had kept in touch with was a guy named Anil who ran the hotel we were staying in. Anil was a long shot, a weak one but it was our only shot. I met him down in the lobby of our hotel dressed in Hawaiian shorts ready to go to the beach. By that point we had all but given up and had planned to reach the beaches and the tourist sites for pretty pictures and some sun. Anil told me he knew an 'army guy' who he was good friends with and that we might be able to speak to him if he was in town. Fair enough, I thought, and off we went to get some sun.
Colombo - 12/06/2009 - 8:20 am - Omega Inn Cafe
My breakfast arrived an hour late. They're playing a Kanye West music video on the TV. It plugs me back into a life less humid. They forgot my knife and fork again. Nevermind, do like the natives - eat with my hands - tastier that way anyway.
"Mr Guy!" Comes a call - its the smiley lady from the reception desk. I look up from my dhal. "The Brigadier is here" Brigadier? What Brigadier? Wait. The army guy's a Brigadier?
It was two days later and Anil had come good on his word. As I had just began my long awaited breakfast I was summoned to the 2nd floor to meet the mysterious 'army guy'. It turns out this 'army guy' was Brigadier Prasanna De Silva. He was the Brigade commander of the 55th Division of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). He was the one that had lead the march from the Elephant pass in the north to Chalai, he was the one that was on the front line when the human shields, the Tamil civilians had spilled from the LTTE lines to the armies side, he was the one that had helped push the LTTE into the tiny strip of land of Mullaitivu. And he's the guy I was sitting in front of in a darkened room on the 2nd floor of the hotel. It was odd, he was tense, more nervous than I was. He was curt with the others, told them not to set up anything and that he would give us some advice but that was it. He asked me what it was I wanted, I told him I intended to address the conceptions of the armies excessiveness regarding civilians casualties. I wanted, I told him, to address the concerns the diaspora had of the conflict. The diaspora, I said, who were so cut off from what was really happening here. That peaked an interest. He said that most people are quite open to youngsters like me coming from over there wanting to change opinion. He gave me his card and said he'd see what he could do. We didn't even get him on camera. I was dissapointed, but not for long.
Colombo Swimming Club
Brigadier Prasanna called me a few days after that and gave me a number to call. He had looked into it. He told me what I had already known; that to film, we needed a permit and a permit could only be sought from the highest offices. The number he gave me was for one of those offices however, the mobile number of Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. Military Spokesperson and Media Director of the SLA. So we were granted an audience with the man who could answer every question I had. Perfect. I called straight away to set up an interview. He asked me to meet him at his swimming club. Strange, I thought, must be Prasanna's influence that has him willing to meet me on his day off.
The next day we caught a tri-shaw to the Colombo Swimming Club expecting to meet the man in his civvies, when we arrived however, we were quickly ushered through a side entrance at the gate. Our passports were taken and we were given three media passes and taken to a lobby. We sat with a large picture of The President and his brother centred above a huge Sri Lankan flag. This was no 'swimming club', I thought, what we had entered as it turned out was the Media Headquarters of the Sri Lankan government - the 'Colombo Swimming Club' though it existed, was but a clever front.
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara was a tall, well spoken man. He had a way of talking into my chest and not my eyes, something that only made me more aware of the stain on my un-ironed shirt. I told him about my intentions and what I hoped for the documentary. What struck me foremost was that he was a good listener, so I made sure I had something to say. I said my piece and sat back hoping he'd acquiesce to an interview. What he said next perhaps details the effectiveness of Machang Level communication. 'Are you related to Prasanna?' He asked. 'No sir, he is a friend of a friend of my uncle.' I replied. He smiled, the door was unlocked. 'Yes, Good. Write that in the letter to the M.O.D asking for clearance. Write all that stuff about the diaspora. Do you want to visit a camp?' My eyes lit up. 'And IDP camp?' I ventured. 'Yes. And talk to some I.D.P'ers?' He was looking at my eyes by this point. 'Um. That would be unbelievable.' It was, I didn't believe him. 'How long do you need to get what you want?' I looked at Heidi, she looked back just as stunned. 'How about a week?' I figured I'd go for gold. He gave me an apologetic look that said silly boy, 'That's a bit too long. I'll give you three days to get everything over this weekend.' My hand gripped my chair for I was afraid that my excitement would propel me across the table and kiss Udaya on the forehead. 'Oh good.' I squeaked. He cautioned that I still had to e-mail the M.O.D for clearance and if they said no then that would be it, that was the business of a higher authority than his. Having the backing of Prasanna De Silva, however might swing it our way, so he again suggested I write about my relationship to him, however weak it was. He gave me the e-mail for the M.O.D and told me to address it to Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse.
The Letter To The President's Brother
Colombo 16/06/09 16:30PM - Hotel Room
I am to write a letter to the Presidents brother. 'A masterpiece in ass-kissing brilliance' is Phil's estimation. But I intend to write the truth. Though it has become evident that there are multiple levels of truth in Sri Lanka. Our own reality looking in from the diaspora, that of the people of Sri Lanka who have been bombarded by government propaganda and the reality of the ground in the North. Gothabaya will have his own reality too. Therefore the aim of this letter will have to match his reality or we will no doubt receive a rejection reply in no time. I wish Prasanna was my uncle, would be so much easier...
I didn't lie. I said that I wanted to re-balance the perceptions of the western media upon the war in Sri Lanka. That wasn't a lie. I simply wanted to offer a fuller picture. In any case I pressed 'send' knowing full well that the chances of a student journo being granted permission to go anywhere near an IDP camp was slim to none.
In any case you had to marvel at the power of Machang Level communication. So far, my 'path to influence' had gone like this; I called my Uncle who gave me Anil who gave me Brigadier De Silva who gave me Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkarra who gave me the M.O.D which gives me the brother of the President of Sri Lanka. And all done because my Uncle knew the guy who ran our hotel. Sweet. If nothing else I could say I wrote Gothabaya.
I informed both Brigadiers that I had sent the request and the next day Heidi, Phil and I set off to climb Sigiriya Rock, an ancient fortress atop a mountain in the Hill-country region of Sri Lanka. It was a four hour ride through winding narrow roads to get there but none of us cared. We were getting out of Colombo and on the other side were beautiful green fields of tea and rainforest hills. The climb up Sigiriya rock took two hours, past ancient murals and stone carvings. I caught solace at the top of the mount looking out on nothing but serenity.
I felt my pocket - A vibration. My phone, I felt, was ringing - it was Brigadier Prasanna De Silva. He spoke, excited and congratulated me on reaching the top of the rock. 'Yeah thanks' I said, 'I've done it before.' He paused and then told me the news. I had gotten clearance and I was allocated the 19th to the 21st of June to visit Vavuniya. I could go to an IDP camp and talk to a few people there and if I would like come up to Chalai and visit him there. 'If I would like to come to Chalai?' Chalai was near Mullaitivu, the final battleground of the LTTE resistance. Chalai was where the last bullet was fired and the last soldier fell. It's where Prabharkaran was killed and where the 30 years of bloody war had ended. I knew full well no-one bar soldiers had been up there. We would be the first civilians to have travelled that far north and the first foreigners to feel the sands of Chalai beach under our feet.
His final words were 'You know some Minister had requested a visit here earlier in the week. He was refused entry. But you got in! Hah! Well done buddy!'
I suddenly felt a very real sense of vertigo.