Eyewitness account of Tamil attack
Sunday's Tamil attack was yet another embarrassment to President Mahinda Rajapakse's dysfunctional government, says Fortune's Eric Ellis.
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (Fortune) -- At 1:50 a.m. on Sunday, the Mad Max-esque Road Warrior air force of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched a raid on Colombo, while most of the city was watching Sri Lanka's cricketing heroes succumb to Australia in the final of cricket's World Cup, being played a dozen time zones away in Barbados in front of their junketing president.
Colombo is seen by the Tigers from their homeland lair in the northeast of the island as the mostly Sinhalese enemy capital in the island's south. It was the third raid the 'Tamil Eelam Air Force' had undertaken in a month, and the second on Colombo. The Tigers' jerry-built propeller planes - adapted Zlin Z-143s or Czech Cessnas - attacked two city oil dumps and flew back to the safety of Eelam, as the LTTE calls the Tamil regions under their control. The Sri Lankan military's MiGs stayed in their hangars, their pilots presumably too engrossed by the cricket game to scramble.
This is a strange, half-hearted war from a Colombo standpoint. The gun emplacement on the tumbledown turret on Colombo's Galle Rd waterfront is one of the cushier postings for young grunts defending Sri Lanka. The tower directly overlooks the Galle Face Hotel's swimming pool, where there are limitless opportunities for bored soldiers to spy on bikinied foreigners lazily stroking away their holidays below. If the grunts get really lucky, barer flesh titillates from the guest bathrooms of the GFH's south wing, barely 50 meters away. Binoculars glinting into the setting sun are a feature of a GFH stay.
Having watched Australia demolish the Lanka bowlers on the terrace TV downstairs, I had retired to Room 4012 in the GFH at midnight, two hours before the raid. The last thing I remember noticing before nodding off was the dull glow of a TV inside the gun tower. At 2 a.m., I was awakened by what sounded like popping fireworks and some dull thuds. Had Sri Lanka fought back in Barbados, and locals were celebrating? I flicked on the TV - Sri Lanka were still battling, no watchable game on there. I looked out the window, just as the tower erupted in a blaze of orange gunfire.
This was no concentrated firing. As anti-aircraft tracer lit up the night sky, the boys on the tower just blazed away Rambo-like in a wide arc of fire. Who knows whether they were told to do so - here was an long-coveted opportunity to loose off a few in wartime. At one point they even seemed to be shooting into the street below.
There was another burst an hour later, as bullets tried to reach out to a plane flying along the shoreline, which turned out to be a commercial flight.
The Kafkaesque elements continued into Sunday breakfast on the hotel terrace, where regular guests know that crows like to picnic on the breakfast buffet. The table hubbub was louder than usual, thanks to the earlier excitements. Immaculately cummerbunded staff, in ironic counterpoint to the previous night's fireworks, shot pebbles with slingshots at the stealthy sky-borne invaders seeking snacks. Colombo's hotel managers were instructed not to tell curious foreign guests what had happened and why, lest already-devastated tourist numbers dive further.
The attack was yet another embarrassment to President Mahinda Rajapakse's dysfunctional government, just the latest in a long list of maladministrators that have burdened war-weary Sri Lankans. That was evident in the lockdown Colombo was ordered into during Sunday's attacks. The government ordered the city's power supply to be cut, presumably to deny the Tiger pilots the oxygen of visibility.
But Lankans have long known the state power utility, the Ceylon Electricity Board, struggles to service the national grid, so many houses, buildings and hotels have generators. No sooner had the CEB switched off the power than Colombo was again bathed in light. The HQ of the National Intelligence Board, Sri Lanka's CIA and supposedly one of 20 'high-value targets' slated for special protection, blazed brighter than most.
The Tigers know all this; indeed they seem to know Colombo better than Lanka's politicians. The LTTE too have a long list - of government assassinations. But their approach here seems to be to ridicule Colombo's leaders, many of whom have economic interests in maintaining the 25-year-old war and seem in denial that the Tigers' Eelam is a country, with all the accoutrements of state. Eelam has designated borders and border control, ministries, customs and tax collections, a central bank and a capital, Killinochchi. The LTTE are the world's only proscribed terrorist organization that has a navy and, as locked-down Colomboites ruefully now know, an air force.
And the Tigers have been having particular fun with Rajapakse. Since coming to office in 2005, he has been burnishing his Sinhalese nationalist credentials by developing a cult of personality across the country. His photos have been going up on billboards next to new statues of Dutugemenu, the Sinhalese warrior-king who ruled more than 2,000 years ago - and astride his elephant defeated his rival Tamil Chola king, Elara. The symbolism is laid on very thick - every Lankan knows the fable, much as Balkans recall ancient battles and slights to justify modern-day ethnic cleansing.
Rajapakse won the presidency after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led coalition he inherited from Chandrika Kumaratunga had won 105 of 225 seats in 2004 parliamentary polls. His is a government where the term backbencher is unknown. Rajapakse presides over a cabinet of 52 - one of the biggest in the world. There are another 33 "non-cabinet' ministers and a further 20 "deputy ministers."
With a million-plus people employed in its civil service, Sri Lanka also has one of the biggest public payrolls in the world, relative to its 21 million population and an economy measured at just $18 billion, about the size of a modest multi-national company. Official posts mean perks; cars, drivers, houses, staff, budgets, air-conditioning. But what precisely does the Minister of Plan Implementation do? The two Ministers of Nation Building? Of Coconut Development? Why are there six agriculture-related ministries?
But the smiling Rajapakse has blundered. He got on a plane to the Caribbean hours after Sri Lanka beat New Zealand last Tuesday to reach the World Cup, anxious to cozy up to the island's skilful cricketers, who with Sinhalese/Tamil/Buddhist/Christian/Muslim/Hindu members present as an elysian rainbow of the possible on this troubled island. The Tigers had said they would suspend hostilities for the semi-final but it seems the moment victory was secured against the Kiwis and the President was Barbados-bound, the LTTE decided cricket-obsessed Colombo would be attacked during the weekend final.
Colombo's politicians did the rest. Saturday's press carried bitter attacks from the opposition United National Party, whose government had signed the 2002 ceasefire with the LTTE now in tatters under Rajapakse, that the president had abandoned the country, likening Rajapakse to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. The Tigers attacked a day later and, doubtless, will do so again and again, until this government is laughed out of office.