‘Don’t be fooled by Sri Lanka’s makeover’

PANAJI: Sri Lankan architect and urban designer Madhura Prematilleke said one mustn’t be fooled by the makeover Sri Lanka received post the three decades of civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil minority.He was speaking at the recently held international Z-axis conference on architecture in Panaji. “The authoritarian regime with the four Rajapaksa brothers at the helm initiated a massive programme of physical infrastructure as a post-war chest thumping project, leaving minorities out. Boundary walls of public buildings were removed. New parks, walkways, water fronts, bird watching zones, flower markets, floating markets were all built at lightening speed in the mock classical style chosen by the dictators, brushing aside all opposition. The spectacle of glitz and glamour was meant to divert citizens’ attention away from the real problems of corruption and bribery that the country was facing,” he said.

maithri_mahindarCiting an example of dictatorial regime, Prematilleke said the army wanted to clear a waterfront which had been encroached by locals. The army met the locals and told them they had one week to vacate the area. The locals told the army they had been occupying the place for many years and would challenge it in court. The army pacified them, telling them they would postpone the project. “The next morning when the locals went to work, the army arrived and cleared the entire stretch within six hours,” he said.

Prematilleke explained what came to be known as the ‘white phenomenon’. “People’s criticism and protests wouldn’t be disrupted. Instead when they went back to their homes or were travelling on lonely roads, a white van would arrive and the protestors would never be heard of again.” More than 13 journalists and others critical of the government disappeared during the past six years he said.

The country has one of the highest army to people ratio he said. It was the army personnel who swept the roads, cleaned the public toilets and maintained impressive order in the country but the undertones of this apparent beauty, order and speed were to take people’s minds away from dangerous things happening. He confessed he had a difficult time convincing fellow citizens the real intention behind the tarting up of the city.

As an architect, he retracted into the private realm, preferring not to engage in the regime at the time. Post the 2015 election when Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated, Prematilleke said “Many don’t know what to do with this new found freedom.”

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