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Show that will shake Sigiriya

(Inset) Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena:
Show very much on

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

With government attempts to convert the fabled Water Gardens of Sigiriya with its unique landscape into a gaudy night carnival, the Paris-based World Heritage Centre is now watching keenly how Sri Lanka manages its World Heritage Sites while Sri Lankan authorities appear to be turning a blind eye to the possibility of the country's environmental and archaeological laws being breached.

Sigiriya, despite regular tourist traffic and being the most visited UNESCO declared heritage site in Sri Lanka, still remains a stunning manifestation of nature's beauty. For centuries it was left in its original condition until the British rediscovered the magnificent site built by King Kashyapa.

Sigiriya was declared a World Heritage Site in 1998 for its outstanding universal value.

There are some 878 such sites the world over, out of which 679 are cultural sites and 174 are natural sites while 25 others are declared mixed category sites.


Though Sigiriya's splendour remained untouched, the Ministry of Tourism is quite keen to introduce a sound and light show to the site and appear quite impressed with the sound and light shows in India - at the Red Fort in Old Delhi and Golkonda Fort in Hyderabad. The point the authorities appear to be missing here is these sites are located in urban areas and not in deep jungles.

What is further overlooked in the eagerness to have Sri Lanka's first ever Son et Lumiere is that all those laser beams and music might attempt to recreate the Kashyapa era, but the world declared heritage site would suffer the adverse impact.


To boot, the country's Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance will be violated as the Sigiriya fortress is situated in the midst of a Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) declared sanctuary.

This architectural wonder has so far been opened only to visitors but the ambitious plan to have Sigiriya flooded with visitors by eventide is going to cast Sri Lanka in a negative light before the World Heritage Centre in Paris which is already concerned about Sri Lanka's mismanagement of sites and the state party's failure to take corrective measures even after recommended action being proposed.

Adding some modern day vulgarities to amuse some tourists in a city steeped in culture and a declared sanctuary may appear to some as an inevitable aspect of development, particularly driven by a wish to earn some quick dollars. If anything, given the country's precarious situation, there would be very few who would wish to get to the Sigiriya site altogether, let alone spend their dollars there.


The revival of a proposal that was originally made during the Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNP administration died a natural death amidst strident protests. The proposals to 'modernise' Sigiriya were made in 2003 which resulted in a public outcry with environmentalists, archaeologists, historians and nature lovers collectively opposing what they viewed as an intrusion. The programme was named: 'Sunset Walk In Sigiriya.'

The concept had been envisaged by two foreign experts, Stein-Roger Bull and Svein Sturla Hunges who proposed an illuminated walk in Sigiriya to create a 'magically new attraction' within a sanctuary.

It was then envisaged for the Sigiriya Gardens to have daily visitors numbering 400, floodlights flashing down from the rock into the gardens below, electric trains to take tourists around the moat surrounding the rock, illuminated trees, soldiers dressed up in ancient regalia, music suitable for a sunset walk complete with choreographed nymphs dancing with water flowers reminiscent of the Sigiri Apsaras, no less.


With the cash strapped government having only a war to rely on, many are the proposals that are made for increasing revenue, particularly in the tourism sector. One is to put the rock fortress under a permanent spotlight with blaring music and laser beams for additional aesthetics in the midst of a bird sanctuary.

Admittedly, sound and light shows are very popular the world over and many countries including neighbouring India also made considerable pecuniary benefit of the places where they hold such shows. Except that India never selected declared sanctuaries to have their night shows to beckon scarce tourists. There is too much of respect for culture and history in India to attempt such. The one time India forgot the lesson with regard to Taj Mahal, the level of protest was so high that it caused the Mayawathi administration in Uttar Pradesh to fall.


As for Sigiriya, a bird sanctuary of immense value, the Shalin Falcons, an endangered species, breed in the crevices of the rock. There were deer, elephants and other mammals living in the sanctuary.

The heritage site comes directly under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs but there is no impact assessment so far obtained on the possible effect of a sound and light show in Sigiriya.

And the deafening silence of the DWLC is also mind-boggling given that the site is situated within a bird sanctuary which is the habitat of many species and a breeding ground for unique species.

Next comes the role of the Department of Archaeology. This department dating back to the days of the legendary H.C.P. Bell should also be playing a role in this context to stem the possible negative impact.

In the year 2003, definite alterations to the structures at Sigiriya were attempted but after the public outcry, they were halted thus saving the day- and of course Sigiriya. The million-dollar question now is with the Tourism Ministry still keen on the Son Et Lumiere whether this extends to other 'improvements' as well?


There is no need to over-emphasize that Sri Lanka would suffer for the mismanagement of its sites specially when the country has now proposed the declaration of a new peak wilderness site, comprising Sri Pada, Horton Plains and the Knuckles Range while the Seruwila-Somawathiya sacred route is already in the pipeline to be declared a heritage site, he added.

It would be disastrous to send Sri Lanka on a reverse course now.

What is to be further borne in mind is that Sigiriya is by no means the sole proprietorship or the heritage of the Ministries of Tourism and Culture alone but the common heritage of all Sri Lankans. And the country would be happy not to have a misplaced show in violation of the country's many laws but to have the natural environment of Sigiriya untouched and to have the wild animals roam freely in their own wild habitat.


World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

Ancient city of Polonnaruwa (1982)

Ancient city of Sigiriya (1982)

Sacred city of Anuradhapura (1982)

Old town of Galle and its fortifications (1988)

Sacred city of Kandy (1988)

Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988)

Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991)


Devaluation of site - UNESCO

Secretary General, Sri Lanka National Commission of UNESCO, Prithiviraj Perera noted that all state parties to the World Heritage Convention should respect world heritage guidelines which are created to help better preserve and manage heritage sites.

"It is incumbent upon state parties to inform the World Heritage Centre in Paris before embarking on development work with regard to declared sites.  As far as Sigiriya is concerned, Paris has not been informed," he said.

Importantly, Perera emphasized that during President Chandrika Kumaratunga's regime in 2001, a proposal to expand the SLAF airstrip in Kimbissa was made, but the regime decided against it placing the integrity and authenticity of a universally important site on par with a national security requirement.


Will continue to agitate - DWLC

A top official from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) said that they have continuously raised their concerns over such issues in the past and so far have not been informed whether the proposed show will become a reality.

He said that nothing has been finalised with regard to the sound and light show  and added that the DWLC had proposed earlier that whatever the programmes may be, they should be conducted without disturbing the habitats near the fabled rock.

The official added that the department would agitate for the same in the future.


In the planning stage - Minister

Cultural Affairs Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena told The Sunday Leader that the proposed sound and light show in Sigiriya was still in its planning stages. "It is still an idea. A lot of things have to be done before it is implemented, but the concept is very much on," he said. 


Record at a glance

In 2001, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) proposed the expansion of its airstrip in Kimbisssa in close proximity to the fabled rock fortress. It was halted following massive protests by environmentalists. UNESCO raised serious objections to the proposal for negatively impacting on the boulders and an alternative site was found in Hingurakgoda.

In Dambulla, the construction of a Buddha statue at the very entrance of the famous rock temple, a declared heritage site has violated the authenticity and the integrity of the original site.

The newly built pavilion at the Galle Cricket Stadium is an intrusion an illegal construction that extends beyond the parameters and covers part of the ramparts in violation of the heritage guidelines. The recommendations by a UNESCO expert committee to restore its original view have not been followed.

The proposed sound and light show at Sigiriya will not only disturb the wildlife in the declared sanctuary which is now a UNESCO declared world heritage site but also bring additional pressures on the site.


No AIA obtained - Archaeology Dept.

A senior official from the Department of Archaeology said that Section 43(A) of the Antiquities Ordinance required any project concerning the development of a declared archaeological site to have an archaeological impact assessment (AIA) survey conducted prior to commencement.

" So far no such thing has been done," he said.


Disturbing habitat prohibited - Lawyer

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardene opines that under Section 7 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, causing disturbance to animals, their habitat and their breeding places is prohibited.

Besides, he warns that sound, especially in the night, would definitely disturb the animals while light or even reflected light could affect them.

He also warns about the hornets that may be aroused by scores of visitors reaching Sigiriya for the night shows. The impact, Gunawardene warns will not only be experienced by the tourists but also the nearby villages.

He adds that many bird species including the rare Shahin Falcon  which only breeds in a handful of places breeds in Sigiriya. A migrant bird Blue Rock Thrush too had been spotted there while Sigiriya remains a habitat for many other species. "Not forgetting the deer and even the leopard," he adds.

M.I.A. and the bogey of genocide in Sri Lanka

Mathangi - hip hop artist - stage name M.I.A

By Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan 

I listened to the interview of Tavis Smiley of the Public Service Broadcasting (PBS) with Mathangi (aka Maya) Arulpragasam a hip-hop artist (stage name M.I.A.- Missing in Action) who has been nominated for Grammy and Oscar Awards for 2009.

Maya was born in Sri Lanka, so she claims (though I cannot confirm this fact but give her the benefit of the doubt) but lived most part of her life first in India and then in the UK and currently a British citizen, to the best of my knowledge. I don't think she has visited Sri Lanka ever since her family migrated to India in the early 1980s (and later to the UK), to the best of my knowledge.


Most of what M.I.A. said about the civil war in Sri Lanka during the course of the aforementioned interview was misinformation at best, blatant lies at worse, either due to ignorance or deceit. "It is ironic that I am the only Tamil, turned out to be the only voice for the Tamil people in the Western media" thundered M.I.A., a claim that smacks of self indulgence and echoes the claim of the LTTE that it is the sole representative of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. A claim accepted by very few Tamils in Sri Lanka or in the diasporas.

"There is a genocide going on, systematic genocide since 1983, Tamils being 20 percent of the population getting wiped out. 350,000 stuck in the battle zone getting wiped out. There are 4,000 Tamil Tiger soldiers but the Sri Lankan government, a million soldiers big, wants to wipe out the whole Tamil population," claims the self-appointed spokesperson and saviour of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

I can forgive M.I.A. for her lack of understanding of the meaning of 'genocide' because she is not educated enough to understand such terms. I can refer her to an elaborate recent interview with Dr. Franklin Lamb by International Lawyers Without Borders. According to a statement issued by the United Nations on February 16, 2009, the LTTE is abusing Tamil civilians in the conflict zone as a human shield and shooting and killing civilians attempting to flee the conflict zone.

The UN also highlighted the fact that children under the age of 14 are  forcibly recruited by the LTTE to fight this futile war. Is not the sacrifice of the Tamil children for a lost cause, a  genocide of the next generation of the Tamil community?

When and how did M.I.A. count 350,000 Tamils in the battle zone? How did she know that there are one million soldiers in the Sri Lankan armed forces?

Tamils wiped out?

 As a person who has undertaken post-conflict needs assessment in the conflict zones in early 2003 and post-tsunami needs assessment in early 2005 for the UN (mostly in LTTE-controlled territories), I can authoritatively say that there are only about 100,000-150,000 people in the battle zone (i.e. LTTE-held area in the Wanni) as of mid-February 2009, which amounts to a mere 0.50 - 0.75 % of the total population of Sri Lanka (circa 20 million). So, how on earth can she claim that Tamils accounting for 20% of the population are being wiped out?

Of course, unacceptable numbers of innocent Tamil civilians are being killed in the past few weeks by both sides, which is certainly a cause for grave concern. To the best of my knowledge, there are only about 300,000 personnel in the police and three armed forces (army, air force and the navy) of Sri Lanka, and not a million as M.I.A. claims.

Two ethnicities

M.I.A. also claimed that there are "two ethnicities - majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils" in Sri Lanka, which is factually incorrect. There are, in fact, several ethnic communities living in Sri Lanka - Sinhalese, Tamils of North and East, Muslims (though bulk of them speak Tamil they prefer to be identified as a separate ethnicity), Hill-country Tamils (migrants from Tamil Nadu state in India during the British colonial rule), Malays, Burghers, Chinese, Veddahs (indigenous people), Sindhis, Bohras, Memons, etc.

The self-professed "only voice for the Tamils in the Western media" left out some other 'truths' of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, because she has been traveling around the world as a "refugee" she has not been in touch with what was happening in her imagined homeland.

Cannot she remember the truth that LTTE massacred hundreds of Muslim worshipers in two mosques in Eravur and Kattankudy in the Batticaloa District (Eastern Province) in 1990? Cannot she remember the truth that innocent Sinhalese villagers were hacked to death by machetes and swords by the LTTE throughout this nasty civil war in the Eastern and Northern Provinces? Could not she remember the truth that nearly 100,000 Muslims were evicted from their homes at gunpoint in the Northern Province by the LTTE in 1990?

Muslims were given only 72 hours (in many cases only 24 hours) notice to vacate their historical habitats and were not allowed to take their furniture or consumer durables along with them. Was not the massacre at the mosques genocide? Was not the forcible eviction of Muslims from the north ethnic cleansing?

"Tamil civilians do not have the right to speak or right to think, right to live," so goes celebrity untruths of M.I.A. who has not even visited Sri Lanka in the past 25 years or more to make this sweeping claim. I myself (a Tamil from Northern Sri Lanka) have been criticising the Sri Lankan government on matters of economic policies, human rights violations by the security forces, corruption, transparency and accountability of public finances, etc. in public forums such as the media. Of course, I am fortunate to be still alive, but not many other critics of the government are, particularly media personnel, in the past three years. These excesses by the security forces are nowhere near a genocidal situation.

Whether M.I.A. wins the Grammy and/or the Oscar or not,  M.I.A., an epitome of the art of deception by some impervious and insular Tamils among the diasporas, deserves a naattu patrallar (person affectionate to the country or patriot) award from the demon god of the Wanni.

In any event, poor civilians caught up in this vicious civil war would have never heard of M.I.A. or hi-hop music, nor are they interested. This kind of celebrity untruths will boomerang on the worldwide Tamil community as liars of the first order. Even the actual truths will be construed as untruths or at least suspected by the international community.

As an ethnic Tamil myself, on the one hand I am proud of M.I.A. being nominated for the Grammy and Oscar Awards, on the other hand I am disgraced by her blatant lies on television on behalf of "all Tamils" in Sri Lanka (and beyond), whereas nobody has given her permission to represent all Tamils.

As a learned person I have bit of advice for M.I.A. and the like, members of Tamil diasporas around the world; "It is preferable to tell the truth, small in its dimensions, than a large lie artfully embellished." (Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, 1985, Guerrilla Warfare, Manchester: University Press, pp146).

 More Issues....

  M.I.A. and the bogey of
    genocide in Sri Lanka







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