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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Interrogated European couple to leave country

Belgian independent film-maker Guilhem de Crombrugghe and his French girlfriend Marie Ferdinand entered Sri Lanka on January 5. The couple was on holiday, and on tourist visas.  However, they were not here to ‘sit on the beaches and enjoy five star hotels’, as they put it. They wanted to experience a different side to Sri Lanka, and research on how tourism development was affecting the country.

 “It is important when you travel… that you know what is going on in a country,” Guilhem says. During their travels, Guilhem and Marie visited Kalpitiya. There, they stumbled upon the site of the Kalpitiya Dutch Bay resort development project, which aims to convert 14 islands, or 5000 acres of land, into several tourist hotels, offering everything from water sports and amusement parks to camping, according to an International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM) report compiled by ‘civil society representatives’ from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India and Thailand, which was published in September 2011.

 As the report noted, villagers in the Mohothtuwarama village as well as people from the islands of Illupanthivu and Uchchamunai were facing problems, as the sea washed away their homes. They were unable to move inland, with the area marked for the tourist project fenced off, and faced the possibility of losing their homes. Having apprised themselves of the situation, Guilhem and Marie decided to visit the surrounding area and talk to some of the locals who had been affected by the project.
 However, as they wanted to hear both sides of the story, they also made sure to visit hotel owners and also paid a visit to the Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and spoke to officials there on the project. They had the best of intentions, wanting to focus on tourism from a neutral standpoint.
 While the couple was interviewing a family on March 17 (Saturday), the phone had rung. The family’s demeanour changed after the phone call, Guilhem said, and he realised that something was wrong. Soon after, a Navy official arrived at the house to see what they were doing. At this point, the couple decided that it was probably better for them to leave. So they returned to Negombo that very evening, to the Sunshine Guesthouse where they were staying.

The very next day Guilhem and Marie began to receive strange phone calls, purporting to be from the SLTDA. “They were saying weird things… like ‘I lost my land…’ It was clear that people were looking for us,” Guilhem said. The couple refused to reveal where they were staying or go to meet the callers. Shortly after, a representative from the SLTDA called and insisted on a meeting. As such, Guilhem agreed to meet the caller at 4 p.m. at the Cinnamon Grand hotel on Monday (19). At 3 p.m. Guilhem and Marie were picked up by the CID in Colombo, who had been tipped off about the couple. They then interrogated them for four hours, asking them what the purpose of their visit was, what kind of people they had met, and what questions they had posed to those people.
 The CID also wanted to know if the couple had said anything that might harm the people of Sri Lanka, or was anti-nationalistic, Guilhem said. After the interrogation, the CID travelled with the couple back to their hotel room.

 They arrived at around 9 p.m. and asked the duo to log onto their computers and show them the video footage they had taken. As the files were large, the CID then seized the couple’s computer and camera. A CID official stayed, to ensure the two did not go anywhere. They were both asked not to leave the Sunshine Guesthouse on Lewis Place.

 After examining the files, the CID then questioned the couple further. This time the interviews were more positive. The CID, having examined the content on video, found that there was nothing particularly controversial.
 However that night (20) a CID officer in plain clothes was again posted at the guesthouse. Marie and Guilhem reportedly left the country a few days later. Chairman of the Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority, Nalaka Godahewa said he had heard that the couple had met and spoken with one of the SLTDA’s development officers in Kalpitiya. The questions they had asked had been general and related to tourism development, “the type of questions any journalist would ask,” Godahewa said. However, he added that he did not know the full details of what happened at the meeting.

 Godahewa said he had heard the issue was being investigated by the Defence Ministry and he was as yet unsure of the outcome. He added that the SLTDA spoke to many people who visited them, including journalists. Godahewa estimated that some 160 journalists had spoken to the Authority in recent times and there had never been any issue. Guilhem later said that they had met and spoken with Chairman Godahewa as well. Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said that the couple had been questioned as they had entered the country on a tourist visa. “Anyone can come into the country but there are different categories of visas you have to apply for. This applies if you make a film as well,” Rohana said. The police spokesman said authorities had received information that a couple was interviewing people for a film or documentary programme. He stressed that the couple were not arrested or even detained. The CID had only asked them about the documentary content. Rohana claimed that the couple was free to move about and that they were still staying at the guesthouse in Negombo where they had been staying for most of their holiday. The police spokesman added that he could not make any comment on whether the two would be deported, as the authorities needed to conduct investigations into the matter and “find out what kind of documentary they were going to make.” Rohana was unaware of when the couple was scheduled to leave the country. Although Guilhem and Marie had originally planned to stay in Sri Lanka until April 3, they were reportedly asked to leave the country on Friday (23).


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