Charles stays away from town of fear

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The Independent Online
Peter Popham reports from Kandy, the ancient town that - following last week's temple bombing - the Prince of Wales will no longer be visiting when he arrives in Sri Lanka for 50th anniversary celebrations.

The entrance porch of Sri Lanka's holiest temple is crammed with silent, watching people. The porch looks out on the temple grounds; since the temple was badly damaged in a bomb blast a week ago, this is the closest the public can get to the building which is a symbol of the nation's sovereignty, and which houses the relic - a tooth of the Buddha - which is held to be Sri Lanka's most important possession.

But the people crammed in here are not looking at the temple but at a woman standing at the front of the porch. She is dressed all in white, and she seems to be in a kind of trance. Holding the national flag in her right hand, eyes wide, unblinking, malevolently staring, her head snaps spasmodically from side to side as she spits out a convulsive torrent of words, on and on, without pause. From the tone one would guess that she was calling down curses or foretelling frightful disasters. When the Tamil Tigers blew up the Dalada Maligawa temple in Sri Lanka's ancient capital, Kandy, they forced the government to switch celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence to Colombo. Kandy's colonial-era buildings had been whitewashed for the event, but Prince Charles will not now be coming to this gorgeous lakeside town.

But for the people here, his absence is not their main preoccupation, neither is it fear of more attacks or lost tourist revenue.It is something deeper, more primitive. The woman in the temple porch is giving vent to it. Those watching struggle to explain. "The temple is a very important place. She is very sad and afraid about what has happened to it," a local journalist wrote. "What was hit was the heart of the Sinhala Buddhist identity and pride ... the belief that the Tooth Relic protects the land, gives rain, and acts as the guardian of the people persists to this day."

The tooth - supposedly taken from the Buddha's funeral pyre - was unharmed, but the arrival of Sri Lanka's war in the sacred heart of the old capital has produced a mood of superstitious foreboding unprecedented in the country's bloody decades of freedom. After the explosion, the de facto defence minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, tendered his resignation but the President refused to accept it. The minister refused to withdraw it. This farce matters, because Mr Ratwatte is the government's chief hawk, behind the policy of achieving military victory over the Tigers. The drive to open a land route through the rebel lands of the north to Jaffna was supposed to be achieved by now. Mr Ratwatte's boast was that the first bus would run from Colombo all the way north on Independence Day. It may set off, but is unlikely to have many passengers: during fighting around the village of Kilinochchi yesterday on the bus's putative route and only five miles from the Jaffna Peninsula, the government claimed to have killed 300 enemy fighters.

Prince Charles will arrive in a country more bloodily divided than at any time in history. Explaining why he had invited the Prince, the Home Affairs minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, said: "We want him to see how much we have achieved." Sri Lanka has in parts a superficial gloss of prosperity, but with its ubiquitous sandbagged gun emplacements, oil drums full of cement, and soldiers with Kalashnikovs, Colombo has become a vast armed camp. Occasional electric signs flashing reminders of the anniversary are obscured by high steel barricades. Anecdotal evidence suggests the government's tough military line on the Tigers is still popular. Local elections held in Jaffna last week drew derisory turn-outs of 25 per cent due to the Tigers' threat to disrupt voting, but they were completed without major incident.