It was a scene straight out of an old spy movie. But these guys were nothing like the KGB. They were clumsy, peeping from behind trees, following people around, asking questions. They were everywhere in plain sight, spying on anyone who they pegged could behave naughtily. Of course, they were uniformed but who in their right mind would want to behave romantically with a loved one with a uniformed guard watching one’s every move.
But we were made long before we were through the gate. The Nikon camera our photojournalist wielded like a lightsaber probably gave us away. We were greeted with: “You can’t take photos in the park.” These were the Civil Defense Force guys who maintained their interpretation of ‘decorum’ at the Viharamahadevi Park a few days ahead of Valentine’s Day.
Dust has only begun to settle on Independence Day celebrations. But the people’s independence has been denied of them, so much so that, they are afraid to even talk about being denied of independence. But Nation was able to talk to a few outspoken couples about the surveillance at the park ahead of Valentine’s Day.
A couple who wished to remain anonymous said that a certain degree of decorum has to be maintained as some couples who frequent the park abuse the freedom. “Being watched only becomes a problem if you behave inappropriately”, the female partner said.
We’ve all been exposed to behaviour bordering on PG 13 when visiting parks at one time or another. But what can one do in broad daylight?
Raphael Sash, an Israeli vacationing in Sri Lanka observed that being shooed off for showing affection is a sad phenomenon in deed. “I come from a closed society as well, but we shouldn’t be afraid to show affection”, he said.
“There is no democracy in Sri Lanka. Everyone looks at everyone else in a twisted perspective,” says another boy who was apparently shown a yellow card by one of the uniformed men for ‘potential misbehaviour’.
At this point we were detained by the same uniformed man indicating that he has to check with his next in command what we were doing – talking to couples about Valentine’s Day in the park – is sanctioned under the Viharamahadevi Park regulations. He consulted a superior with a loud “Ayya, ayya!” and then they consulted the superior’s superior over the phone. “They are talking to couples about Valentine’s Day for the paper…” he trailed off.
When asked whether the regulations were available for perusal he answered in the negative, saying that it’s issued by the Urban Development Authority. The Viharamahadevi Park syndrome is probably the only case in the world where taking photographs is forbidden.
A similar incident at Independence square in March 2016 led to ‘Occupy the Square’, where a large crowds gathered at the Square in protest of two security guards removing a couple from the premises. The Cultural Affairs Ministry had to cancel the contract with a government- owned Security Company.
Sahan Soysa does not have a positive opinion about them being watched. “We come to the park to be left in peace. If they’re watching us then it’s an invasion of our privacy” he said.
Sahan and his girlfriend both aged 22 are over the age of consent. Sahan pointed out that the problem is that the children’s park is in the same vicinity. “Some people don’t know how to behave. If couples had a separate place to meet then there wouldn’t be a problem. There is no such place anywhere in Sri Lanka”, he regretted.
It’s a cultural problem, according to Sahan. After all, school students are penalised for having affairs. It is customary for school prefects to check bags on Valentine’s Day in case, God forbid, boy gifts chocolates to a girl. In a culture so suppressed it is no wonder that young couples seek the refuge of rooms for rent.
Pics by Musthaq Thasleem