By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“True, it is not the first time Rome has seen a man wielding unlimited power; but it is the first time he sets no limit to it…" — Camus (Caligula)
The 18th Amendment was the elixir of power, absolute and longue durée; empowered, the Rajapaksas are unleashing mopping-up operations to neutralise the few enclaves still resistant to their dominance. Such as the City of Colombo. Colombo’s poor predominantly vote for the UNP.
Thanks to their numerical preponderance and strong resistance to Rajapaksa lures, the UPFA has failed to make a clean sweep of Colombo electorally, as it has done elsewhere in the country, outside of the North and the East. And, a large proportion of Colombo’s poor are Tamils and Muslims.
Mostly Green and largely non-Sinhala Buddhist — for the Rajapaksas, aristocrats from the rural Medamulana — Colombo’s poor would seem the quintessential Other. And Colombo’s poor occupy lands of extremely high commercial value. The Premadasa housing policy endeavoured not to evict the poor but to regularise their occupation and improve their living conditions. This strategy was motivated by two considerations. Colombo’s poor formed an important component of the support base of the UNP and Ranasinghe Premadasa; and the Jayewardene-Premadasa UNP regarded Colombo’s poor as fellow humans and citizens (this was the antithesis of the dismissive attitude de rigueur in the left and SLFP circles).
In the Rajapaksa worldview, Colombo’s poor are alien socially, sociologically (caste) and ethno-religiously and undesirable politico-electorally. And their mass eviction can bring enormous benefits to the Ruling Family. The Rajapaksa plan for Colombo has a political component and an economic component. It aims at establishing political control over Colombo, via a policy of demographic engineering. Initially 60,000 people are to be evicted. Though the regime says only unauthorised occupants will be affected, the reality of previous evictions indicates otherwise.
For instance, in Mews Street, many families with legal title were evicted; other evictees have been living in their houses for decades, paying rates and electricity and water bills. They were all unceremoniously thrown out, ignoring a court order, in a military operation which pitted armed servicemen in full riot gear against unarmed men, women and children. The lands thus cleared will be ‘developed’ and sold/leased. The Rajapaksas would use the prejudices latent in Colombo’s middle and upper classes to manufacture consent for this move, just as they used the prejudices latent in the Sinhala South to manufacture consent for ‘welfare villages’.
The Rajapaksa plan amounts to a veritable class-cleansing, eradicating poverty in Colombo and beautifying it by evicting its poor and destroying their livelihoods and abodes. The mass eviction of pavement hawkers was the first step. Moves are afoot to get rid of beggars as well. Colombo is to be turned into an exclusive preserve of the rich and the beautiful (and the powerful). The Urban Development Authority Act is to be amended, preventing the residents from seeking legal redress against arbitrary evictions. And the Colombo Municipal Council is to be turned into a Special Authority under the Defence Ministry. The purported reason is the inefficiency of the CMC.
If inefficiency is the real criteria, most local authority bodies, provincial councils, ministries, departments and corporations will have to be dissolved. The move against the CMC is akin to the conviction of Gen. Fonseka by the Second Military Tribunal for violating procedures – it is highly selective and politically motivated; an act of persecution rather than of justice.
The regime wants to abolish the CMC because the UNP will win in the city of Colombo, thanks to the backing of its poor. And an elected CMC under UNP control can offer some resistance to the regime’s planned mass evictions. Once the CMC is abolished, the UNP loses its only remaining electoral bastion and Colombo’s poor even a sliver of protection. And the regime has its carte blanche, to paint Colombo in Royal Blue.
Having laid the foundation for dynastic rule with the 18th Amendment, the Rajapaksas are busy erecting the edifice of familial rule. Be it the 18th Amendment or the proposed 19th Amendment, the demographic engineering of the North or the persecution of Gen. Fonseka, the primary purpose of each measure is to enable the Ruling Family to concentrate more and more power in its hands and weaken and defeat actual or potential opponents/impediments. The Rajapaksa onslaught on democratic institutions and popular rights is a common threat, a danger to the South as much to the North, to the rich and the middle classes as much to Colombo’s poor.
The Rajapaksa economic strategy which aims at achieving economic growth at any cost will compel not just the poor but also the middles classes to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden via increased inflation. The prioritising of defence spending will leave less and less money for those subsidies and services which the middle classes need in order to maintain their economic standards and social status.
The Rajapaksas have been uncommonly successful in hiding this unpalatable and frightening reality from Sri Lankans. By isolating each target, they have managed to prevent Sri Lankans from forming a holistic view of the threat posed by Familial Rule. Words are distorted to obfuscate reality and ethno-religious and class prejudices are used to preclude even human sympathy; and the target of the moment is presented as an undesirable alien if not an outright ‘enemy of the nation’. This distortion justifies extraordinary measures, even in violation of justice and decency.
The Rajapaksas understand the danger of a unified opposition. The last thing they would want is a broad coalition, with unjust or anti-democratic acts being resisted even by those who are not directly affected. Rajapaksas want to fragment the people, to prevent any solidarity, cooperation and even sympathy, across ethnic, religious or class barriers.
President Rajapaksa in an interview with the Wall Street Journal presented Sri Lanka as an ‘alternative low cost manufacturing base’ to China. This indicates that Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa rule is destined to become not a knowledge-hub but a sweat shop-hub. The success of such a strategy would require a right-less and a powerless society and a subservient polity. It will also require young people poor enough and desperate enough to work for phenomenally low wages, under abysmal working conditions.
Those who are acquainted with the hell-on-earth working conditions prevailing in China (where death from overwork is a common phenomenon) would be able to imagine the fate that is in store for Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. The UNP of Ranasinghe Premadasa or J.R. Jayewardene would have resisted tooth and nail the moves to politically cleanse Colombo by abolishing the CMC and evicting the poor.
Will the UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe understand that the party cannot afford to allow the mass eviction of Colombo’s poor or the abolition of the CMC?
Will Sajith Premadasa, who is yet to show a capacity to fight for anything other than personal preference votes, rise to the defence of Colombo’s poor, the bedrock of President Premadasa’s support base?
Or would the Rajapaksas succeed in occupying Colombo, because no one cared enough to resist, because those of us who can resist failed to see the need for it?