by Namini Wijedasa
I have missed my vocation in life. I should have been a treasure hunter.
I fault my parents for this. They never told me it would be so easy, or so painlessly lucrative. All you need is a good archaeological site (and we’ve plenty of those), some basic implements—and a backhoe. These are large, heavy and conspicuous but easily available. As an added advantage, the police don’t see them. Everyone else does, just not the police.
It used to be difficult to get a backhoe in this country because there were so few of them. But they were recently imported in their dozens for vital rehabilitation activity such as road building. Some countries also donated big batches of backhoes to Sri Lanka . And of what use is road building if it doesn’t involve a little treasure hunting on the side, eh?
Now, the police may have been completely useless at stopping the plunder but they do have statistics. According to their records—which are no doubt incomplete—more than 500 incidents were reported during the last three years. These include digging for treasure, stealing, robbing of valuable items from temples, illegal possession of ancient artefacts and large scale theft. Hundreds of related crimes go unreported.
What is particularly worrying is the apparent involvement of security forces, politicians and government officials in the desecration of historical and archaeological sites. How else could so much treasure hunting take place, undeterred, over such a long period of time? (That, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another unanswered, typically Sri Lankan, million dollar question).
Inhabitants of a village in Mahavilachchiya recently caught armed members of the police Special Task Force spiritedly pawing at an archaeological site with a backhoe (what else). Several villagers were injured in the clash that ensued. According to reports, the STF had said they were prospecting for weapons. Yes, in the middle of the night. On the bund of an ancient irrigation tank. In Mahavilachchiya. Makes flawless sense.
Firstly, STF teams need not come all the way from Colombo and dig up archaeological sites in Mahavilachchiya to find weapons. There are hordes of weapons, mostly illegal, in and around Colombo . Why not “excavate” for those?
Secondly, the details of this incident are shrouded in mystery, not least because the police keep offering cockeyed, inconsistent, vapid explanations about what had happened. The STF initially claimed they were looking for weapons. N.K. Ilangakoon, the police chief, later issued a statement saying he had personally deployed the STF to catch some people who were suspected to be hunting for treasure. Right… and a backhoe would be of great help in that.
Oh, but there’s an explanation for the backhoe too. Ilangakoon’s statement said the police were following up on a lead that someone had ‘found’ an invaluable artefact—and had hidden it in that place. So the STF team was sent there (from Colombo ) to ‘find’ the artefact before it passed into the hands of a third party. This is precisely why they were poking around with a backhoe on the bund of an ancient irrigation tank in the middle of the night. At Dunumadalawa. In Mahavilachchiya.
Dammit, I should have been a treasure hunter. It’s a lot more fun than this writing job. You get to knock about the whole country, raping all its historic, archaeological—even sacred—sites and nobody would lift a finger against you! You could steal whatever you stumble upon, sell it and make millions (as many have done before you).
No danger whatsoever. These days, you’d get into deeper trouble criticising the manner in which Buddhism is practised in Sri Lanka than you would desecrating a Buddhist site!
But there are worrying signs that treasure hunting won’t be such a cinch in the near future. The government has said it will take ‘stern action’ against those who steal national artefacts and treasures (including others who aspire to waltz into the country’s national museum and make off, entirely unimpeded, with thousands of historical items).
Some of the measures the government will take are to increase the fines imposed from 50,000 rupees to 250,000 rupees and to increase the two-year imprisonment to five years.
All very fine… except that police have still not arrested any suspects in the museum case which took place in March! And despite such barefaced inefficiency, they have set up an additional ‘special unit’ to probe treasure hunting as well as thefts and robberies of artefacts! So everything will now be ok. No, really.
Only problem is that even the JHU has accused the government of being involved in this pillage; that the government shipped in equipment that could be used in treasure hunting; and that while all this plundering is going on, the government has kept silent. Well, we don’t know about that. We don’t know at all.
In the meantime, does somebody have Dutugemunu’s sword? Anybody…?