Aside from the familiar traffic, everyday travel by Sri Lankans in Colombo and its surrounding suburbs can be frequently disrupted by the scattered “floating” checkpoints. What might be mistaken in another time or place as simple metal souvenir or lemonade stands abandoned on the side of any given road, are the tangible shadows of security checkpoints. Periodically and somewhat randomly these floating checkpoints are brought to life by the presence of three to four police or soldiers who flag down one in every few motorists. The standard questioning covers their identity papers, place of departure, present destination, and purpose for traveling. While ostensibly for protection against terrorist infiltration and attacks, these checkpoints far more frequently function essentially as a shakedown where unscrupulous traffic cops can make a lot of money. Otherwise, based on the pattern of motorists who get flagged down, it would seem that drivers of the common three wheeled taxi, ubiquitously known as tuk-tuks, comprise the single largest terrorist threat to Sri Lankan national security.
Either to maintain a clean image for tourism or as a calculated threat analysis, the security personnel at these floating checkpoints generally avoid stopping a vehicle with a visible foreign passenger. On one evening while tucked in the back seat of a three wheeled taxi, my presence seems to have initially gone unnoticed as a junior officer standing at the side of the road flagged down the taxi driver to stop. The slightly built driver pulled to the street’s edge, asked me to wait, and stepped out while reflexively reaching into his pocket. As the driver stepped onto curb, the apparent senior officer leaned slightly forward from his seat in metal stand, glanced into the small taxi’s backseat, and waved for the driver to continue on our way.
For a country that covers just 24,996 square miles (64,740 sq km) of land, an area slightly larger than West Virginia, traveling across Sri Lanka from end to end presents a greater challenge than crossing half the globe to reach this island. The many obstacles to simple internal movement place a tremendous burden on individuals, the local economy of small businesses, and the cohesion of society at large. In an extremely exaggerated reflection of airports worldwide, a quick one hour plane flight between Colombo and Jaffna actually consumes an entire day with at least eight additional hours spent navigating airport security and red tape. All of this even after days or weeks spent obtaining the prior security permit required to enter or leave Jaffna. Yet these flights are always booked to capacity, as they are one of the only remaining links between these two major cities.
Travel by sea between Trincomalee and Jaffna entails a ten hour voyage circling well off the coastline to circumvent LTTE controlled waters, as well as the six hour bus ride separating Colombo from Trincomalee. This route does offer the enticement of much less red tape at the ports, but the relative bureaucratic ease also carries the risky gamble of maritime passage being abruptly suspend without notice due to a myriad of security, weather, or political causes which could leave ships stranded in port for up to a week or more. Highways also link every major city and during the recent peace process cars and buses could easily drive back and forth between Colombo and Jaffna in under seven hours. Now with the unfortunate return of open hostilities countless security checkpoints, barricades, and zones of active conflict rule out the land journey by civilians as impossible.
Posted By Adam Nord (Sri Lanka)
Posted Nov 11th, 2007