Some of the world’s leading journals showered plaudits on Sri Lanka, ‘the resplendent isle,’ as one of the best destinations in the world. It was value for money and a tourist got more than his money’s worth, they boasted.
This is why the idyllic Tangalle area, long ignored though endowed with blue waters and sandy beaches, attracts many tourists nowadays. The resorts there were full. The 32-year-old Khuram Zaman Shaikh, a physiotherapist with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the Gaza Strip and his girlfriend Victoria Alexandrovna (also with the ICRC) felt Sri Lanka was a safer place for their holiday. They should have known better.
The Gaza Strip, 40 kilometres long and ten kilometres wide, is home for 1.5 million Palestinians. Under Egyptian control for 19 years, it was seized by Israel during the 1967 war. The couple has seen deadly clashes between two militant factions — Hamas and Fatah. They have also seen frequent Israeli air strikes targeting militants. They were convinced that with the separatist war in Sri Lanka now over, they would not see violence, ghastly scenes of wounded victims or corpses. They were also convinced that there would be no sporadic bomb explosions or suicide attacks.
Last Saturday night, Khuram and Victoria were enjoying themselves at Nature’s Resort, one approved by the Tourist Board. Khuram, who was of Israeli origin, is a British Passport holder while Victoria held a Russian passport. Christmas had dawned and there was much revelry. Suddenly, a local UPFA politician and his gang struck a discordant note. First they fired rapid bursts from a T-56 assault rifle into the air. That was to welcome the dawn of Christmas. Why pay for crackers when 7.62 calibre ammunition is available free?
In the ghastly incident that followed, Khuram’s bullet riddled body lay on the beach outside. Victoria was badly injured and was first admitted to the Matara Base Hospital. From there she was transferred to a private hospital in Colombo. The Sunday Times learnt from authoritative sources that Victoria had been sexually abused if not even raped though embarrassed officials in Colombo denied it. The full details of the shameful incident appear on Pages 14 and 15.
More questions than answers
Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Nalaka Godahewa played down the incident, one of the darkest episodes in recent tourism history. He claimed such incidents — tourists being robbed, mugged and murdered — took place even in developed countries. He predicted it would not have a negative impact on Sri Lankan tourism. He said the culprits had been apprehended. On the one hand, Dr. Godahewa’s remarks raise more questions than answers. It is not damage control but a feeble attempt at public relations. The question is whether his remarks would be taken as a credible statement that would dispel fears in the minds of tourists. This was proved on Christmas day when tourists in resorts in Tangalle vacated them rapidly. Fear of harm had gripped them. They were also angry with the way ‘local thugs’ with seeming political patronage were harassing tourists. Some even cut short their holidays and flew back to their homes.
How the London Daily Mail reported the story on its website
The message it delivers? Sri Lanka is still not a safe place. Moreover, the tourist couple were not, unlike in other tourist destinations in the developed world, victims of touts, drug addicts, a crime syndicate or a confidence trickster. It was a politician from the ruling party and his cohorts. They used the protection provided by his goons to attack the helpless. Incidents of gun toting ruling-party politicians and drunken daredevils shooting dead a tourist in cold blood in the developed world is unheard of.
As is the disturbing practice when an incident involves local UPFA politicians, the first story centred on a tussle between two tourist hoteliers in the area. Khuram is claimed to have intervened to settle it when he received cut injuries. It was somewhat vague on how Victoria came to suffer injuries. When news reached President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was very angry. It would have been a thorough embarrassment to him that the incident took place both, in his home-town and involving his party men. He ordered that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) conduct an impartial investigation. That itself raised questions because the CID has been tainted with political interference — and its ability to conduct impartial investigations when ruling-party politicians are involved is severely tested. An official in the President’s staff was also detailed to keep the British High Commission and the Russian embassy in Colombo informed of the investigation and to assure them that there would be no (political) interference.
This investigation has unfolded a worrying tale. The centre of attraction for the politician was Victoria. Khuram had resented sexual advances being made on her and a fight had ensued. He paid with his life. His girlfriend Victoria has lived to tell the tale. The incident has brought in its wake a number of pronouncements from different political personalities in the government. One wanted tourist resorts searched, and not local politicians, for illegal arms. Others pontificated piously at a news conference that the public should be educated, and not the local politicians, about how to handle tourists. Worse enough, the Khuram killing in Tangalle is not the only incident that has worried the tourism sector over the role of local politicians.
In most towns, particularly along the coastline, the hotels, resorts and guest houses approved by the Tourist Board have become literally isolated. The surrounding areas have become the hunting ground for thugs and touts who are supported by local politicians, and whose support the politician needs at times of elections. These low end budget guest houses lure the tourists for cheaper beer, fruits and food items than those sold by the recognised operators. The latter is frightened to complain to Police for fear of reprisals from the local thugs/politicians. For the same reason, the Police are also reluctant to act on their own. Hence the indiscipline continues.
Adverse impact on tourism
In the New Year that begins today, the fallout from the Khuram killing, there is little doubt, will have some impact on the tourism sector. A diplomatic source said yesterday that the British government was keeping close touch on the progress of the investigation. The move is being viewed as a prelude to a new travel advisory on Sri Lanka. With bi-lateral relations between Britain and Sri Lanka having taken a nose dive in recent years, it is almost as if Britain would be waiting for something like this to happen to give a dig. British media reported the incident in their print edition and their online edition and reader’s asked if it was the “jungle law” that prevailed in Sri Lanka. Britain is known as a feeding market for Sri Lanka. During the separatist war between troops and Tiger guerrillas, one of the biggest worries for the tourism sector were the worldwide reportage of bombing incidents outside the north and east. They expressed fears that such reports dissuaded tourists from coming to Sri Lanka. Many took up cudgels with Colombo-based foreign correspondents for painting a negative picture of Sri Lanka.
This time, the Khuram killing has generated the same adverse publicity. The answer, as is clear, does not lay in saying it happens in developed countries. Instead, the mafia-backed local politicos who terrorise tourist resorts should be dealt with severely by the Police. For this, the Police should be given the fullest authority and any misuse of power by the politicos would have to be dealt with in a tough manner. Today, the Police are hesitant to deal with them. “The laws apply only to those outside the government,” lamented a senior police official who did not wish to be identified. He said if the government did not act soon, it would lead to further deterioration of the law and order situation.
ST ( from the Political column)