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Displacing Northern Tamils to set up Sinhala military cantonments would increase resentment

Aug 1, 2010 6:51:35 PM- transcurrents.com

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

One should take great care not to bow down or become enslaved to an object unworthy and base, lest we become sharers of the baseness and unworthiness of the same — Giodano Bruno (The Heroic Enthusiasts)

Last week the villagers of Ragamwela in Ampara, engaged in a protest demonstration, accusing the police of occupying their lands. Ragamwela is strategically located close to several tourist hotspots; at midnight, July 17, an armed gang descended on the village, assaulting inhabitants and burning houses.

The nearby STF post stayed away, saying that they have no authority to visit the area! Since then the villagers have been banned from their land and the Chief Sanganayake of Wellassa-Digamadulla, has complained to the Human Rights Council that the Pottuvil police is barring him from observing ‘vas’ in the village temple.

Ragamwela villagers are Sinhalese; they can protest against the injustice done to them, still, without being labelled ‘Tiger pawns’. But protests are an unaffordable luxury for the residents of three Tamil villages in Murukkundi, displaced from their homes when the state confiscated 4,000 acres in Kilinochchi to build 12,000 prefabricated houses for military families.

According to the Army Commander, “once married quarters of the officers and the other ranks are set up in respective areas, they would be able to live with their families as well while serving in the area.” (The Island – 24.7.2010). The implication is that the soldiers, instead of serving short stints in the North (as is the norm), will become permanent settlers together with their families, ushering in a new wave of state-aided and mandated colonisation.

And as the Tamil North becomes dotted with a network of Sinhala cantonments, other facilities will spring up to cater to the newcomers, from Sinhala shops to Sinhala schools, from Sinhala place names to Buddhist temples. This is similar to the strategy of ‘creating facts on the ground’ used by the Israelis to annex Palestinian lands via state-aided Jewish settlements.

That insidious strategy has caused a massive demographic-shift and strengthened extremist forces on both sides of the divide (imagine the harm a JHU-type party can cause by spreading its noxious ideology among the new settlers, who, given their insecurities, will be particularly vulnerable to ‘identity-based politics’).

Panama Mudiyanselage Bandara, a resident of Ragamwela, described the ordeal of the villagers at the hands of a seemingly omnipotent predator: “They took us out and threatened to kill us. They had two T 56 rifles. I managed to flee but by the time I turned back they were setting fire to everywhere” (BBC – 18.7.2010).

So far, the regime has maintained a thundering silence while “local media organisations say that the journalists were stopped from visiting Ragamwela by police” (ibid). Is the dispossession of Ragamwela villagers linked to the ongoing campaign by the authorities to confiscate economically strategic land occupied by the have-nots, under the guise of ‘clearing unauthorised structures’?

Is the Rajapaksa ‘nation-building project’ a confluence of a Sinhala supremacist politico-military strategy and an anti-poor economic strategy? Is majoritarian supremacism being used to reconcile Sinhala have-nots to an economic regimen which benefits them only marginally and sporadically?

Post-war, the regime should prioritise resettling the displaced of all communities, including the Jaffna Muslims chased away by the LTTE. Instead, it is unleashing a wave of colonisation which cannot but be a focal point for existing discontents and a breeding ground for new resentments.

Set in a deprived North, these ‘privileged’ Sinhala enclaves will act as control centres and as symbols of dominance. They will inspire not friendship and reconciliation but resentment and anger. After all, this massive building programme is taking place in a province teeming with displaced Tamils who lack basic facilities including shelter.

And this officially engineered Sinhala influx into the North cannot be justified by arguing that innumerable Tamils live amongst Sinhalese in the South; that is the result of individual migration, and not of state-planned and funded colonisation.

The new colonisation scheme would not be desirable even from the point of view of the settlers, forced to uproot themselves and live in prefabricated low-quality concrete boxes in an inhospitable environment. If the Rajapaksas really want to assist these soldiers, they should build houses and other facilities for them in their original habitats.

Transplanted in an alien territory, their lives will be informed and guided by fear and suspicion. In this context, anything (such as the availability of water) can become a source of ill-will and conflict, between the unarmed ‘natives’ and the armed ‘colonists’, turning the North into a cauldron of phobia and rage.

So a new tragedy of errors is in the making, as Sri Lanka re-opts for a 1956 style nation-building project. We are remaking old mistakes, the hubristic and myopic errors which caused an ethnic problem and a long war.

Unfortunately such regression is unavoidable with an administration which denies the existence of an ethnic problem and reduces a complex national crisis to a mere matter of terrorism.

This habit of politically infantile reductionism is preventing the Rajapaksas from seeing past mistakes as mistakes and making them embrace retrogression (returning to a ‘happy’ pre-Tiger past) as the ideal way to the future.

The ongoing official attempts to sabotage the final consensus of the APRC (which is not an INGO plant and has the approval of the President’s own SLFP) too stems from this inanely unreal worldview. (Minister Tissa Vitarana’s statement that the APRC consensus cannot be considered ‘final’ until the President has responded to it has placed the ball firmly in the President’s court.)

Displacing and marginalising Northern Tamils to set up Sinhala cantonments will increase disquiet and resentment in the North; the more restive the Tamil gets, the greater will be the need for a large military presence, to maintain stability; this will generate more resentment…. That would be one vicious circle.

The strategy of occupation (a huge military presence plus cantonments) in the North will turn exorbitant defence costs into budgetary staples; this will reduce resources available for development and societal welfare in the South, compelling the regime to use force to maintain stability, thereby driving up defence costs still further…. That will be another vicious circle.

In the absence of real and consistent improvements in living conditions, the regime will resort to repressive measures to prevent silent disquiet from burgeoning into violent instability; this in turn will perpetuate the choice of guns over butter…. That will be another vicious circle.

Suspicion and resentment among ethnic and religious communities will add to this poisonous brew, undermining developmental hopes still further; “The intelligence takes revenge”, as Camus warns in his ‘Letters To A German Friend’ (Resistance, Rebellion and Death).

These concentric vicious circles will render democracy unaffordable initially in the North and subsequently in the South. Repression will have to become a norm, the only way to maintain a precarious stability (the planed Media Authority fits perfectly into this scenario).

Is that the real Rajapaksa plan – to turn Sri Lanka into a land of chronic disunity and fear, where democracy seems unaffordable and the Sinhala majority cling to the Ruling Family, however reluctantly, as the last line of defence against an imaginary jungle?