A King Calls On Us
By Ravi Perera
In the morning of August 15 the Colombo Fort area was thrown into chaos once again with several vital roads closed for vehicular traffic. For nearly two hours the main business centre of Colombo, where the Twin Towers (World Trade Centre) and the Bank of Ceylon Head Office are located, were closed. This is where our Stock Market, the Board of Investments, several hotels, banks and other important institutions are located. Of course the harried policemen who were directing traffic were far too frazzled to offer any explanation for the sudden closure of the roads. Like many of those down in the chain of command they didn’t probably know why they had to close the roads. Those who had legitimate business in the area and a busy schedule ahead of them that day had to park as far away as the D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha and walk or taxi back to that area. The policemen looked so stressed out that it looked quite likely that any demand for an explanation would result in a physical response, quite contrary to the spirit of the law!
On further inquiry we learnt that the reason for the closure of the roads was that Mswati, the King of Swaziland, who was a state guest, was visiting the World Trade Centre which is in the heart of Colombo to look at some gems on display there. Because of this visit the thousands who had business in the area were told to just buzz off.
It is the sad fact that for the average Sri Lankan such inconveniences are very much part and parcel of his hard life. Although we are a putative democracy, culturally it is quite acceptable that the rulers (elected or otherwise) act as if above the law and certainly impervious to a sense of decency. It maybe that millions of commuters undergo untold sufferings in jam-packed buses and trains on a daily basis; it is OK for the rulers to go about in swanky limousines (all bought with people’s money) with several other vehicles making up a convoy. It maybe that for the average man it is impossible to make ends meet on his meager salary; it is OK for the rulers to lead a totally contrasting life style where his every wish is met. It maybe that businessmen are struggling to pay their taxes; it is OK for the rulers to make lots and lots of money and yet pay no taxes at all. And of course all of us know that when our rulers go about on public roads they have to be closed or at least we have to all get to a side so that they can move unimpeded.
There will be only a very few Sri Lankans who will be able to place little Swaziland on a World map. Swaziland, which is a small land locked country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, is one of the poorest countries in the world. King Mswati is perhaps the last surviving king on this planet who enjoys absolute power. There have been persistent allegations of corruption against him including criticism of maintaining a glamorous life style quite in contrast to that of his humble subjects. As sanctioned by that culture the King is entitled to and is rumoured to have about eleven wives. No law applies to him save for certain traditional expectations. Pictures and statues of the King greet us everywhere. Apparently anything works or anybody moves in Swaziland only because of his inspiration.
Of course, as an economically weak and in geo-political terms not so important country, Sri Lanka cannot pick and choose its friends. Most times it is a transiting political figure that passes through our territory. So when a king of a country, the country does not matter, comes here we have to bring out the band, get a honour guard ready, close the roads, organize a cocktail and do whatever else we interpret as the protocol thing. We have no right to judge our visitors on a moral basis as all resistance to such things like corruption, nepotism and abuse of power have been given up by us long ago. But despite our eagerness to please political figures of different colours, faiths, shapes and sizes from far and wide, the fact remains that a Sri Lankan travelling with his passport gets little respect in the world. Anybody who has had the experience of living and working in an African or Arabic country will tell you that when it comes to dealing between a white man and a brown, we are very much the children of a lesser god. And you can be sure that had King Mswati visited a developed country, he certainly would not have got the servile reception he receives in countries like Sri Lanka. In fact he would not have expected it either. Our frenetic eagerness to please the big man, with such disregard for our own people, perhaps reinforces a deeply held belief in him that we are an inferior race indeed.
Just imagine like John Lennon invited us to, a situation where our chief of protocol goes up to the King and tells him “Your Majesty we have organized an exhibition of our finest gems for your viewing pleasure at a business centre not far from this hotel.
The traffic in this area of the city abates somewhat about 10 AM. We will provide you with a pilot car and adequate security.” Of course the unmistakable message in such an invitation is a clear statement that, “we respect our people and will not inconvenience them for the sake of some corrupt political figure or an exploiter of his people. In every sense our people come first”.
But considering the thinking patterns in our country and the prevailing culture of deifying the leaders which is encouraged by the power elite, leave alone taking such a stand can an ordinary Sri Lankan even imagine such a situation of personal equality?