By Ayesha Zuhair
‘Secure the Sanctity of Life’ is a message for all times – not just in times of war. That was the message inscribed in Sinhala, Tamil and English on a brightly coloured street mural at the Kynsey Road / Rosmead Place intersection in Borella. For both pedestrians and motorists alike, it was an iconic image conveying a powerful message of peace that was hard to miss.
More importantly, the mural commemorated the life, work and death of a widely-respected Tamil intellectual who stood for peace during his time. It was at this spot that Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, who had courageously devoted so much of his life to resolving the national question through dialogue, was killed by a human bomb of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on July 29, 1999.
Tiruchelvam was a distinguished national leader who had consistently articulated a vision for a united Sri Lanka which accorded equal rights to all its citizenry. This was at a time when a vital section of the community he represented had resorted to violence in a bid to carve out a separate state for members of their ethnicity. The painting at the site of his death was both meant to honour his illustrious life and serve as a reminder about the cost of violence.
But over three nights commencing on August 2, unidentified persons who had reportedly cordoned the area had defaced the mural, and today all that remains over what used to be a symbol of peace are slick coats of tar. It is a disconcerting sight for all those who desire genuine political reconciliation in this deeply divided society.
Mrs. Sithie Tiruchelvam, widow of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, explained that the road painting began 13 years ago, soon after her husband’s assassination. It was not an initiative of any particular institution but a collective effort undertaken by a group of individuals who wanted to find a way of dealing with his death. Most of the people who were involved in the initial stages of the road painting had known him personally, and it was a peaceful way of expressing their grief and honouring him.
Mrs. Tiruchelvam pointed out that for 13 years, even at the height of the armed conflict, the initiative never encountered any opposition. The Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) was regularly informed before the painting took place, and written authorisation had been obtained from the Police when the painting was re-touched prior to his birth and death anniversaries each year. Furthermore, it was done either late at night or very early in the morning to ensure that there would be no disruption to the flow of traffic.
As to why a symbol of peace has been targeted in this manner is the main question lingering in her mind. Something positive had been created out of an extremely negative event by a group of concerned individuals to reinforce the worth of human life, a value held dear by the inimitable Tiruchelvam. That his widow found the obliterating of the road painting distressing and confusing did not, therefore, come as a surprise.
Jayantha Dhanapala was equally perturbed. The former diplomat noted, “The painting of the road at the intersection of Rosmead Place and Kynsey Road has become a traditional commemoration honouring Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam who was assassinated by the LTTE 13 years ago. To my knowledge it does not contravene any laws of the country or by-laws of the Colombo Municipality unlike election campaign slogans. That unidentified individuals under cover of darkness could deface this painting upholding peace and non-violence with impunity is a sad reflection on the authorities especially the Police. The deafening silence of both the Government and the Mayor of Colombo over this incident adds to the Kafkaesque atmosphere prevailing in our land and the widespread concerns over the rule of law.”
Police Spokesman SP Ajith Rohana confirmed that a complaint had been lodged in this connection at the Borella Police Station on August 3 and that investigations were currently underway. He declined to comment any further.
Lakshman Hulugalle, Director-General of the Media Centre for National Security said that he was not aware of the issue and that it does not come under his purview. He directed the Daily Mirror to contact the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC).
When contacted, Colombo Mayor A. J. M. Muzammil condemned the act and insisted that the CMC had no role in obliterating the mural which commemorated a great statesman. He asserted that it was the duty of the Police to investigate the matter and take appropriate action.
As confusion prevails over who was responsible for this deplorable act, there are other unanswered questions. What were they trying to achieve? Did they somehow mistakenly identify Tiruchelvam as an LTTE protagonist?
For this was not a symbol that was designed to incite hatred or divide communities; on the contrary it served as a reminder of the futility of war, and the importance of protecting human life. It honoured a national leader who paid the ultimate price for his relentless pursuit of peace. This mural-removal exercise does not augur well with efforts to re-position Sri Lanka and reconcile its diverse communities. Will the authorities please take note?