Learning from Wanathamulla

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The Defence Secretary came here….Mr. Gotabhaya told me ‘I want to speak to you’. He and I are of different status. So I asked him, ‘Is it right for me to speak to you’? He said, ‘No you can say anything’. Then I made certain criticisms….He got angry”
Sunil Samaradheera of Wanathamulla

( February 20, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In 1940, a year before they began implementing the ‘Final Solution’, the Nazis had a trial-run. A group of German-Jews were deported and the Gestapo watched closely for the reaction of their non-Jewish neighbours.

‘The surrounding populations….hardly noticed….” Reinhard Heydrich stated in his report.

What if the ‘surrounding populations’ chose to notice the plight of their Jewish neighbours? What if they protested that trial-run? Perhaps a partial answer can be gleaned from what happened when a group of non-Jewish Germans did protest the deportations.

In 1943, in a vengeful response to Stalingrad, Josef Goebbels declared Berlin a Jew-free city. 1,800+ Jews with non-Jewish spouses were arrested as part of the final roundup. Undeterred alike by the Nazi’s brutal might and the freezing cold, around 200 non-Jewish Berliners, mostly women, camped outside the Rosenstraße detention-centre demanding the release of their Jewish husbands/relatives.

After a week of threats, the authorities gave in.

In his fascinating account of the Rosenstraße Protest, Nathan Stoltzfus argues that this small group of protestors ‘could exercise disproportionate influence’ because the Nazis were concerned about the ‘negative effect’ of their protest on the larger populace. “The protest was effective because it made the Jews more costly to obtain.”

Impunity is not exclusively a function of power and force from above. It is also a result of apathy and indifference in the middle and bottom. Often resistance is absent not because it is impossible, but because the victims are too cowed and their neighbours are too uncaring.

The people of Rathupaswala would still be living next to a toxic-factory, if they did not protest.

Sunil Samaradheera is a leader in his community’s resistance to the Rajapaksa attempt to evict Wanathamulla’s legal residents, take over their lands sans compensation and force them to buy smaller, poorly-constructed flats (which are subject to de facto military-control). He reportedly had a heated encounter with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa himself.

The next day he was ‘white-vanned’.

The people of Wanathamulla demonstrated in their thousands demanding the safe return of Mr. Sunil. DIG Anura Senanayake reportedly announced that Mr. Sunil will be returned but the people rejected such political promissory-notes. They refused to leave until Mr. Sunil gets home, safe and sound.
The regime may have unleashed the police/army on the protestors but for two reasons: the upcoming provincial election and the looming Geneva challenge. Those two impending encounters rendered unaffordable the spectacle of unarmed men and women being tear-gassed, baton-charged and shot by police/military – or another white-van disappearance.

Mr. Sunil found himself released, unharmed.

The Wanathamulla protest not only forced the marauding Rajapaksas to take a step back. It also compelled the Opposition into unaccustomed activity. The JVP is actively assisting the community; Ranil Wickremesinghe (and Karu Jayasuriya) actually visited Mr. Sunil’s home.
The white-vanning of Mr. Sunil, a Sinhalese, teaches us that abductions are not just a Tamil problem or a Northern problem but a Lankan problem. White-vanning can befall any Sinhalese who, knowingly or unknowingly, displeases the Siblings.

The Reality of the Rajapaksa Land-grab

In 2011, the Rajapaksas introduced the Sacred Areas Act , giving the Minister of Buddha Sasana absolute powers to take over any privately-owned land, by simply declaring it a ‘Protection, Conservation, Architectural or Historic or Sacred Area’. This attempt at legalising land-grabbing failed because a Supreme Court bench headed by CJ Shirani Bandaranayke decreed that the Bill needed the consent of all provincial councils as land is a devolved subject. The Eastern PC opposed the Bill, forcing the regime to withdraw it.

Within months the EPC was (prematurely) dissolved and the impeachment travesty targeting the CJ launched.

Selling/leasing land is a favourite Rajapaksa method of making a quick-buck. Their illegal land-grabbing is not limited to Colombo. Environmental organisations are protesting about the gradual destruction of the Nilagala forest reserve, believed to be King Buddhadasa’s herbal garden: “The lands are being made fallow by the use of weedicide, divided and sold, one acre for around Rs. 10,000” . Concerned organisations and citizens have begun to ‘ordain trees’ in a desperate attempt to prevent this wanton destruction . Bellanwila wetlands are being destroyed, reportedly by the UDA while a plan to build a new city by denuding the Muturajawela wetlands is being hatched .

This week, the Rajapaksas tried to bring in the Casino Act through the backdoor. Two of the areas set aside for the use of James Packer and other casino-moguls are Justice Akbar Mawatha and Glennie Street. The legal residents of Glennie Street were evicted some years ago; they are still waiting for the new houses promised to them . The same fate will befall the residents of Justice Akbar Mawatha.

Long-time legal residents of Colombo are being evicted, to make room for casinos!

Wanathamulla is not a shantie but a tenement-garden (watte). Shanties are illegal settlements. Tenement gardens are legal settlements; many initially belonged to large landowners. As Sirisena Cooray explained, “During the early days under the Municipal Ordinance the landlord was held responsible for the maintenance of these gardens. The houses had to be colour-washed annually…. The Municipality used to be very strict in the observance of these laws…. Gradually things deteriorated because the landlords started bribing the municipal employees. The situation got even worse when the government took over the houses – because there was no one responsible for their maintenance.”

From 1977, the UNP started giving tenants ownership of their houses (for a nominal payment) and providing them with basic facilities, including water, electricity and sanitation (with UNICEF support). This slum-clearance through upgrading (rather than eviction) approach stemmed from two reasons. Colombo’s poor formed a key component of the UNP’s electoral-base and Ranasinghe Premadasa’s support-base. The UNP (especially Mr. Premadasa) realised that shelter was a socio-economic and a psychological need, which was of paramount importance in preventing individual and societal instability. Today most tenement-gardens have well-built, spacious (multi-storeyed) houses, a result of state support and individual initiative plus Middle East money.
But according to Rajapakse worldview, Colombo’s poor are aliens, socially, sociologically and often ethno-religiously, and undesirable, politically and electorally.

Plus they occupy lands the Siblings need to sell/lease.

Once the class-cleansing of Colombo is completed, the Rajapaksas will turn to the rest of the country. By that time the practice of illegally expropriating private land sans compensation for ‘development purposes’ would be a well-established habit. As per Pastor Niemöller’s universal dictum, the middle classes and even the wealthy will realise their predicament too late.

“In no way is one life to be regarded as akin to another life”, was an axiom of Nazi justice . Those who think that Colombo’s poor do not have the same rights as other Lankans is endangering their own rights.

The people of Wanathamulla are not just fighting for themselves; they are fighting for us as well. We can forget universal nature of justice and our common humanity only at our future peril.


  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uick5G5bov8
  2. Quoted in Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosentrasse Protest in Nazi Germany – Nathan Stoltzfus
  3. Ibid
  4. Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Bill
  5. Lankadeepa – 15.1.2014
  6. http://vinsaara.com/tv_programs/show.php?cat=&id=28059#.UwT9DGLjWHM
  7. http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=95688
  8. See Lanka News Web
  9. http://www.asianmirror.lk/english/index.php/daily-highlight/18325-they-still-live-in-hope
  10. President Premadasa and I: Our Story
  11. Quoted in The Third Reich – A New History – Michael Burleigh