By Emil van der Poorten –
Election-Related Violence – Part III
Not so long after the Sirima Bandaranaike government resumed ruling Sri Lanka, and with her brother, Barnes, appointed to the position of Public Trustee, whose subordinate I was under the terms of my late father’s Last Will and Testament, it was believed that the inevitable would befall me and my family – economic and/or personal “payback” for my support of the recently-deposed United National Party (UNP) government.
My first (very pleasant) surprise was Barnes Ratwatte who proved an eminently fair, decent and competent person. The other surprise was his Chief Accountant, a man called Gunaseela Vithanage, who played a leadership role in the Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya, that period’s reputedly intolerant Buddhist-oriented entity with a reputation, not unlike that of the current Bodhu Bala Sena! Gunaseela and his family became good personal friends of mine and I discovered that his wife and children (?) were practicing Roman Catholics!
Dr. Colvin R. de Silva was the recently-appointed Minister of Plantations and Doric D’Souza was his Permanent Secretary, the head of that Ministry’s administration. I had a nodding acquaintance with the latter and the Public Trustee department folks believed that my seeing Colvin in person wouldn’t hurt, my siblings having been his erstwhile political comrades. It was hoped that this meeting would spike the guns of those lining me up for political retribution by “acquiring” my land and livestock farming enterprise “for a (nebulous) public purpose.”
I did succeed in making an appointment with Colvin and Doric at short notice and, both I and the Public Trustee official who accompanied me were greeted cordially.
Colvin opened, in his typically charming manner, with references to the fact that my siblings were his (admired younger) comrades in years past and that he was well aware of the pioneering work I had done in crop diversification and non-traditional livestock husbandry. I remember, very distinctly, his dissertation on what he planned for the plantations of the country. While the intent was that, ultimately, “the people” would own the source of what was then the economic lifeblood of Sri Lanka, he had no intention of killing the goose that was laying the (economic) golden eggs at that time. Succinctly put, his complex plan for the plantation industries made eminent economic and practical sense both from the practical and (left) theoretical end of things. He made it crystal clear that he certainly would not be party to the economic disruption that would be the fall-out of behaviour driven by a need for exacting political vengeance.
In brief, Colvin’s plans were torpedoed by Hector Kobbekaduwa, driven by exactly those impulses that Colvin had decried and his need for power and authority over Sri Lanka’s primary economic engine. He brought to that initiative a capacity for the exaction of personal vengeance probably without previous parallel in Sri Lankan politics. He brought in his so-called “Land Reform” bill.
An addendum to that move could well have been that this piece of legislation was the “carrot” response to the 1971 insurrection where the “stick” had been Sirima Bandaranaike’s ruthless elimination of those romantic revolutionaries, the Che Guevarists. After all, give a peasant land and he will be eternally grateful to you, right?
As someone who’d known Hector Kobbekaduwa from the time I was “knee-high to a duck” and assuming that he knew what kind of person I was and the work I was doing in the mid-country of Sri Lanka in the matter of plantation land rehabilitation, crop diversification and integrated livestock development. I didn’t expect any grief from him or his Ministry.
I couldn’t have been more wrong!
First, he and Mrs. Tamara Kumari Illangaratne began looking for land belonging to me that they could take over. Not finding any in her electorate because my land was in the adjacent Akurana electorate held by one of the few surviving UNP members of Parliament, A.C.S. Hameed, she took over, installing a bunch of monumentally venal incompetents on it, land belonging to my two siblings.
During this time or immediately subsequently, Mr. H.S.R.B. Kobbekaduwa, Minister of Agriculture in Sirima Bandaranaike’s government rose in the House of Parliament and went on record in Hansard promising to “erase the name of van der Poorten from Sri Lanka,” or words to that effect.
What was most interesting about all of this was the fact that my two siblings, whose land had been acquired, were life-long members of the “left,” one of whom had had his head cracked open by a police baton for the first time, working for either Tamara Kumari or Tikiri Banda Illangaratne in a by-election in Kandy! Hector Kobbekaduwa, for certain, was aware of this fact and his (and Mrs. Illangaratne’s) conduct in that context hardly merits further comment.
Incidentally, that land was subsequently returned to my siblings on a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court which held that the acquisition was totally without merit. However, justice delayed is justice denied because my mother had already been denied occupancy of a home that she had built on that land for herself.
The next act of vengeance was a frame-up for a “hit and run” accident in Katugastota on a day when I had not so much as left my residence in Galagedera. That charge which was ultimately dismissed without a defence being called, provided ongoing stress to me and my family despite the fact that it was purely and simply a political frame-up. The one piece of wisdom that I garnered from that experience was a response to my sanguinity from a lawyer classmate of my brothers’ who told me, “Emil, just because you are innocent, don’t, for a moment, believe that a court of law can’t find you guilty!”
Before I was restricted to 50 acres of plantation land under the provisions of the Land Reform Act, I had diversified my holding to the extent that with the help of the maturing permanent crops, a flock of about 350 sheep, a dairy-cow herd which we were upgrading, a few beef cattle, some hogs, about a thousand laying hens and batches of broilers and Muscovy ducks going to market on a regular basis, my family and I were not likely to be knocking at poverty’s door in the mid-country of Sri Lanka at that point in its history.
There was one little catch here though: there was nothing to stop the government from “acquiring for a public purpose” every square inch of my residual land holding. I had seen this happen with a previous SLFP government that had taken over a cinema and the adjacent land by the side of the road near Kadugannawa where it, literally, rotted and became debris presumably serving a “public purpose!”
Exercising a level of secrecy that would have done some “who-dunnit” character proud, we prepared for our departure from Sri Lanka before the final axe fell. That we had not over-reacted was proved by the fact that after our departure, the cavalcade of slogan-shouting occupants of several agricultural tractor trailers that had comprised the forces taking over the land vested in the Land Reform Commission had driven into the front yard of what used to be our home and which was completely outside “their” land, the MP had alighted and with a grand gesture and to the cheers of his somewhat-inebriated supporters had said, “We are going to take this land and house as well very soon.”
In the matter of the last bit of property I owned in Sri Lanka being taken over by a vengeful government, my calculations proved right. Once the “target” wasn’t there, little purpose was served in taking over his land. However, the terminal damage done to what I had built in the form of an integrated agricultural operation was given the coup de grace by a combination of violence – executed and threatened – the exercise of uncontrolled political power and pure and simple malice. More than I, my wife and children, one a pre-teenager and the other a year old, paid the heaviest price in the matter of the dislocation of their lives.
Compared to most who were subjected to this kind of eviction, we were among the luckier ones who had family at our destination to cushion our landing. Nevertheless, it was a pretty awful business – being evicted from the land of your birth, even though it might have given us an understanding of what being a political refugee entailed!