Dispossessing & Disempowering the People

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Do not make us development orphans”.
A slogan at the September 6th protest against Rajapaksa land-grabbing

(September 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Rajapaksa plan to evict almost 70,000 poor families from Colombo and sell/lease their lands to favoured bidders has been put on the backburner - until the Colombo Municipal Council election is over. A protest which took place last week demonstrated that land-grabbing is not the exclusive problem of Colombo’s poor. With actual and potential victims belonging to all ethnic and religious groups, from both urban and rural areas, land-grabbing by the state in the name of national security and development has become a truly Sri Lankan malaise.

The demonstrators, farmers and fishermen, clergy and environmentalists, highlighted a plethora of issues: Kalpitiya islets leased to tourism-promoters, endangering the livelihoods of traditional fishing-communities; large-scale land expropriation in the East to build hotels, a navy camp and a power station; a sea-plane project involving 20 inland reservoirs which can devastate fishing and farming communities and the environment; maize and sugar cane cultivation in Uva Wellassa; banana cultivation in Somawathiya; threats to Sinharaja and the Knuckles Range…. Story after story of dispossession, deprivation and displacement; every one of them resulting from a politico-economic strategy which regards ordinary Lankans, the people, as insignificant, unimportant and expendable.

The sustainability of a politico-economic strategy which ignores popular concerns and harms popular interests requires repressive laws. A regime which is wedded to a strategy of dispossessing and burdening people will need force for survival, sooner or later.
The initial manifestations of this dismissive attitude towards ordinary Lankans happened in the context of the Fourth Eelam War. The myth of a humanitarian operation was premised on denying and belittling the very heavy price ordinary people in the war-zone were compelled to pay. The war was waged, by both the LTTE and the regime, nominally for and on behalf of the Tamil people but in actuality as if they were a negligible quantity, a bagatelle deserving no consideration.

The latest batch of Wikileaks cables details the briefing given by the UN Secretary General to the Co-Chair Ambassadors in Colombo, subsequent to his May 2009 visit to Sri Lanka. In response to a question about conditions in the Menik Farm, Mr. Ban stated that “his visit there had been ‘very sobering and very sad’. He said the conditions were worse than those at any other camps, including in Dafur and Goma that he had visited, and noted that he had seen signs of malnutrition. Asked about his flyover over the No Fire Zone, Ban described seeing ‘complete devastation’….” (Colombo 000567). The fact that Mr. Ban decided not to make his explosive observations public proves that he has no axe to grind. His obvious intent was to work with rather than against the Rajapaksas. Thus his understatedly anguished remarks about the human costs of the war carry weight, and conviction.

The indifference to human cost, the lack of transparency, the no-holds-barred maximalism which characterised the Rajapaksa war-effort are percolating into the South and becoming key features of the regime’s economic strategy. This transposition is evident in the way the regime is expropriating land, secretively, often using extra-legal means and with no consideration towards local communities. The manner in which hundreds of acres were reportedly given to the American company Dole for banana cultivation is an excellent case in point. The state entities which legally own the land were not informed; approval of the Central Environment Authority was not obtained; environmental laws were violated; the entire exercise carried out in secrecy, using the army.

The past of the Tamils is the future of the Sinhalese and Muslims. 

Arbitrary Rule

The regime’s unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone deal with, the politico-psychological and security concerns of the minorities has rendered a consensual peace impossible. By ruling out political reforms (including devolution) the regime has opted for a compulsive peace, imposed on a discontented citizenry at gun point. A key adverse consequence of this path is the impossibility of reducing defence costs, despite the victorious ending of the war. Keeping people quiescent through fear requires large armies, more camps and more weapons, all of which cost money which should have been spent on development.

The high defence costs coupled with the Rajapaksa penchant for extravagant mega-projects (the bid for 2018 Commonwealth Games) have created a financial bind. Selling/leasing lands is an easy way of bridging the growing gap between income and expenditure, at least until the lands run out.

The sustainability of a politico-economic strategy which ignores popular concerns and harms popular interests requires repressive laws. A regime which is wedded to a strategy of dispossessing and burdening people will need force for survival, sooner or later. The Rajapaksas, despite their current undoubted popularity, know this. Thus after ending the Emergency (to pacify the international community), they moved seamlessly to introduce new repressive laws in its place. A proclamation, issued last week by the President under the Public Security Ordinance, enables the deployment of the armed forces to maintain law and order in the entire country. Parliamentary approval has been sought to extend a Bill which allows a suspect to be detained for 48 hours without being produced before a magistrate.

In an even more ominous move, the defence authorities have decided to criminalise public protests against police or the armed forces, ipso facto. According to the military spokesman, “It is wrong for civilians to attack an army camp or police station. Those who do that are terrorists. We will take action against them under the Prevention of Terrorism Act… It doesn't have to be Tamil Tigers. But anybody who attacks the military is a terrorist” (BBC – 4.9.2011).

When the villagers surrounded the Angulana police station demanding justice for two local lads murdered in police custody, the authorities had the suspects arrested and indicted for murder. This August, the court returned a guilty verdict. Had the new ‘regulation’ been in place in August 2009, the protesting villagers could have been labelled and condemned as terrorists while the uniformed murderers escaped scot-free. In Panama, in the Eastern province, Sinhala and Muslim villagers are being dispossessed of their traditional lands to build a new navy camp. The army is reportedly providing security to Dole in Somawathiya. The new regulation would enable the authorities to stifle future dissent against these and other unjust and injurious deeds by imposing the terrorist label on them. Even non-political civic dissent is anathematic to the Rajapaksas.

Recently the weeping-willow trees down one side of Independence Avenue were felled, reportedly because they are a foreign-species! This deed, done in the name of beautifying Colombo and patriotism, indicates that nothing abusive, irrational or excessive is alien to the Ruling-Siblings. That is why the final round of LG polls should be used to install some checks on Rajapaksa-power, by denying the UPFA the control of as many councils as possible, especially Colombo.

The Rajapaksas want to impose their writ and will on Colombo, unhampered by popular opinion and unimpeded by elected local authorities, via a puppet-mayor. It is a role handmade for Milinda Moragoda, who transited smoothly from an arch-supporter of the Tiger-appeasement process (hailed by LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in his book ‘War and Peace’ as ‘congenial’ and demonstrably willing to ‘find creative solutions’) into a Rajapaksa-acolyte. With such a congenial and willing mayor, the Rajapaksa-juggernaut can resume, flattening Colombo’s poor and even the middle classes in its path.

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