More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 97

Over the next few weeks, allmediascotland.com is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

However, I came to adjust my feelings about Sri Lanka after I went there in November 2001 with fond notions of maybe settling down in the Indian Ocean ‘paradise’.

‘Paradise’ is a much over-used word. British travel writers apply it to anywhere with an ambient temperature of more than 20 degrees and a couple of palm trees. I even titled my own book of photographs of Sri Lanka, Fractured Paradise. It was published a few months before I arrived in Colombo, full of positive feelings about the country.

After the launch of Fractured Paradise, at the Galle Face Hotel, I was taken to dinner by the chairman of the English language crusading newspaper, The Sunday Leader. Lal Wickremetunge asked me if I would come and edit his paper as it looked as though the editor, his brother Lasantha, would have to leave the country by the end of the year after intimidation by the then People’s Alliance (PA) government.

The job offer, however, soon enough fell through, after a general election delivered a new party in power: the United National Party.

It wasn’t a problem. I was remarkably content to be settled in the fading colonial splendour of the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo, as correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and Jane’s Intelligence Review, and writing a book on the hotel.

Before I went out to Colombo I had gone to see an acquaintance from the Bosnian war, Alec Russell, who had graduated from being a humble freelance to the exalted position of foreign editor of The Daily Telegraph. He was keen to have a correspondent in Sri Lanka, observing: “It’s a long time since we had decent material from there.”

With the tourist industry then in seemingly total collapse, the management at the Galle Face Hotel did me an excellent deal for a seafront suite overlooking the blue waters of the Indian Ocean and the gently swaying palms of the gardens. The high spot of the day for me was to sit with a gin and tonic on my balcony at the hotel watching the sun sink down into the Indian Ocean. All very agreeable for US$30 a night.

Within days of taking office, the new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, tangibly demonstrated that peace was in the air. Virtually all of the security barriers and checkpoints in Colombo were removed from the streets. This was, or course, universally popular. People could move about without tedious security checks and the traffic flow freed up.

This was soon followed by a ceasefire. Peace moves, brokered by the Norwegian government, continued apace during January and February. A February 22 Memorandum of Agreement (thereafter referred to as the ‘MOU’) was, significantly, signed first by the rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in his eerie in the jungles of the Wanni, a full day before the Prime Minister. The president had not even seen the agreement.

There were elements of the new government’s peace process which were, in my judgement, flawed and I drew attention to them. In the Telegraph, I wrote about child conscription in the east of the country, carried out under the noses of the security forces, emasculated by the MOU with the rebels.

I also wrote of my meeting with the LTTE’s eastern leader, Karikalan, in March