Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Even as farmers protesting the Rajanganaya Drinking Water Project in Thambuttegama were beaten mercilessly by the police and later arrested en masse this week, law enforcement agencies remained inactive in regard to instigators of communal violence in Ampara, happening uncannily enough in the same approximate time span.
What occasions this difference?
This is the tale of impunity in two episodes in modern day Sri Lanka, as reflected in the happenings of one week. Anuradhapura’s unbearably congested remand prisons became even more crowded as angrily protesting farmers were thrust unceremoniously into their depths while, a few hundred kilometres away, the police threw up their hands in Ampara saying merely that investigations were ongoing. The Ampara violence resulted in a mosque, several shops and vehicles of Muslim individuals being set on fire.
What occasions this difference? Why in one, does the State assess it as a fit case to react in a particular manner while in the other, it withdraws discreetly into abstinence amidst a mass of unconvincing explanations?
The answers to these questions is an indication as to what has gone wrong in Sri Lanka and why it was so unwise as to greet regime change in 2015 as if getting rid of the Rajapaksas would suffice to set the country back on the Rule of Law track. This was an illusion advanced by those who personally benefited from the regime change at the time. Its danger has now become clear as political stability in Sri Lanka teeters perilously on a knife edge of chaos.
Absence of an effective water policy
So let us see the context of these two incidents for good measure. In the first instance, the Rajangana demonstrations concerned a plan to use water from the Rajanganaya reservoir for a water purification and supply project conceived of reportedly many years ago during the Rajapaksa period which the farmers alleged, deprived the local communities of adequate water for their agricultural needs.
On all accounts, these protests were not sudden. Affected communities had been agitating for months,saying that they were not against the purification project but that their priority was ensuring adequate water for farming. Farmers had not been reassured by promises held out by responsible Ministers that their grievances would be listened to. Post Rajangana violence, the public was treated to the preposterous spectacle of Sri Lanka Freedom Party Ministers explaining that this was a project that had not even commenced but that it had been ‘temporarily suspended.’ The inherent if not ludicrous contradiction in that very explanation is blindingly obvious.
Regardless, the patronizing manner in which these ministerial worthies spoke to their constituents had to be seen to be believed. This is the arrogance of power, pure and simple, exercised by greedy, grasping men who think that their constituents are cattle, to be quieted into subservience. The fact that the violence resulted in several police officers being injured is undoubtedly unfortunate. But whether Rajapaksa provocateurs were behind the protests, as Ministers alleged on national television with condescension and bluster, is anybody’s guess. Rajapaksa-blaming has become an easy excuse for sheer incompetence on the part of both factions of this coalition Government. Consequently such excuses need to be treated with some reservations.
The re-igniting of a communal canard
But where the communal violence in the East was concerned, it had been spawned nonsensically enough, through a brawl arising in an eatery regarding long persisting allegations that Muslim traders were selling products to make Sinhalese women barren. The idiocy in this canard deserves to be summarily dismissed with justifiable contempt except for the fact that I remember, these same rumors circulating during the Rajapaksa period, as repeated solemnly by people educated enough to know better.
As our history has shown, these are inflammatory and unabashed communalistic allegations that can incite terrible violence. As to why this Government does not use the existing law to teach these trouble makers, the most salutary of lessons is therefore reason for considerable angst.For the State’s response to the Rajangana protests stands oddly in contrast to its inaction in regard to the Ampara violence. In one, grievances appeared to be legitimate, rendered problematic however by violence by the police and counter-violence by the protestors.
Indeed it as by a whisker that a Rathupaswela-Weliweriya like fracas was preventedin Rajangana. Rathupaswela-Weliweriyawas where villagers who protested against alleged contamination of the ground water by a commercial enterprise with links to the Rajapaksa regime were tear gassed and beaten by the army with three deaths ensuing as a result.In the other, a communal canard led to violence in a worrying pattern. Though the undoubted rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the East cannot be brushed away, these incidents illustrate how this country always balances precariously on the abyss every day.
Variable state reactions to public agitation
But it is the way in which state reaction to public agitation is mediated by variable factors that have very little to do with the Rule of Law that should concern us with good reason. It was so with the Rajapaksas, subject to the rider that the toxic flames of communalism and rape of the land were used actively by the regime’s agitators to subdue the people.
With regard to the coalition Government, that same allegation certainly does not hold sway. However it has failed (or as the cynics would say, it never really wished) to dismantle the state structures of impunity meticulously assembled by the Rajapaksas under the hand of then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and former President MahindaRajapaksa’s brother who is now projecting himself as the people’s choice of the future. Since 2015, it was a papering over of always seething communal and racial discontent rather than a rooting out of its main causes. Now as the Government implodes from within, aggravated by the results of February’s local government elections, these incidents are a grave portend of impending chaos. To regard them as isolated occurrences far away from the capital is to commit a mistake. This is a harbinger of what awaits this troubled land in the future if corrective action is not taken swiftly.
Abandoning tone-deaf political arrogance
The Rathupaswela-Weliweriya agitations and now the Rajangana protests signify expanding frontiers of mass public agitation.In the North meanwhile, public ferment is ongoing among war affected communities who are not allowed to return to their lands. State policy regarding land and water must be decided and managed sensibly with transparent and accountable decision making. Ad hoc decisions do not serve the purpose. And at least occasionally, the Government may do well to listen to the people. Necessarily this will mean abandoning its tone-deaf political arrogance that has already incurred a high electoral cost.