Colombo Telegraph

Land – A Raw Nerve

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

The Rise and Fall of the Tamil Militancy and the International Legal Implications of the Government’s Counter-Insurgency – Part 5

Weli Oya was conceived as a northward expansion of the Padaviya Scheme with quasi-military motivation. The spirit in which the Padaviya settlement was done in 1957 and the secretive methods employed had some similarity to Weli Oya in 1984 (see T. Sabaratnam, The Murder of a Moderate, pp.52-60, 85-86). A part of Trincomalee District bordering the North Central Province came at the tail-end of the scheme where 400 allotments were to be given to Tamils who were losing their jobs at the Trincomalee Dockyard which was being ceded by the British Admiralty. A group of Sinhalese labourers at Padaviya led by a monk forcibly occupied this land and the Government did nothing. The ideological significance of the scheme was not lost on C.P. de Silva, then Minister of Lands, and his officials. At its very inception Padaviya, in 1958, had become a hot bed of communal violence. It was the first major scheme in which there were no Tamil beneficiaries.

The following testimonies of people in Padaviya are taken from Bulletin No.4 (1995):

“H.N. Somadasa of Walapane, Udapusselawa, came to Padaviya at the age of 21 in 1956 as an irrigation employee. Following the communal violence which sparked off [in 1958], he was remanded. Asked what led him to join in attacks on Tamils, he replied, “There were many Tamils employed on the scheme. A rumour was spread that Tamils were going to take-over the entire scheme. We became angry and attacked them. I later discovered that the rumour was false and felt ashamed.” Asked who spread the rumours, he replied “Why, the papers had them!” He, like the other employees of the scheme received land in Padaviya in lieu of gratuity.

“Asked about the impact of the war, Somadasa said that every year about two or three dead bodies of soldiers are brought for interment to his village of Siyawa, Padaviya. The village has about 200 families. Considering the ten years of war, the impact is quantitatively of the order of what an average Tamil village in the East would have suffered.

“Piyadasa (50), originally from Madawachiya, explained: “Many young boys from here have joined the forces because rains have failed for the last seven years and the reservoir does not store enough water. Consequently, the people are unable to make ends meet through cultivation. During the rainy season (Yala, October-December) our fields tend to flood. Cultivation at this time (rain-fed cultivation) thus tends to be unreliable. Our main crop is therefore during the summer (Maha, May-September) season. This depends on water from the reservoir.” Farmers questioned said they have cultivated about four times in the last three years. For families without an income apart from cultivation, life is hard.

“Gunawathie (40) originally from Madawachiya is unmarried. Her family derive their main income from helping two brothers who cultivate the family plot of 3 acres. They manage because of support from the state (e.g. dry rations) in the event of crop failure. That also means state patronage.”

For these people it had been a 40 year journey from poverty to poverty, leaving them more vulnerable to manipulation and their lives inextricably entwined with the war. The JVP too during its two rebellions had recruited from colonisation schemes, as does the Army.

With Padaviya being used as a spring-board for Weli Oya, in the wake of the July 1983 violence, it touched a raw nerve among the Tamils. It gave an added urgency to the words spoken by the late Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam at the Federal Party convention in Trincomalee in April 1951:

“Some safeguards are essential for the continued existence of a minority race in a multi-racial state. The first is its numerical strength. The second is its territory. Both these pre-requisites are being attacked by the UNP government. Its disfranchisement of seven lakhs Indian Tamils had reduced the voting strength of the Tamils by almost half. It is now robbing the Tamils of their territory. …Today
it is Gal Oya, tomorrow it will be Kantalai, then Padaviya, Vavuniya, Mannar and so on. Gal Oya is the beginning of a process which will reduce the Tamils and Muslims to minority communities in the areas they live”. (See T. Sabaratnam, Murder of a moderate.)

Why did the Government of Jayewardene launch aggression of this kind in the months after July 1983 when the consequences were bound to be extremely grave? Jayewardene was not one who was blind to the dangers, but he had got into a way of trying to fortify himself where he allowed or even encouraged his subordinates to do what was reckless and utterly imprudent while trying to keep his own options open. The Jayewardene of post July 1983 appeared a weak and vacillating man reacting to circumstances. He seemed to lack the brash confidence of his earlier term, which brought about many changes in the country whether for the good or for the bad. It was in this context that Ravi Jayewardene was given an influential role.

In many quarters Ravi Jayewardene has left behind a favourable impression as a man who lives simply, is a good listener who does not impose himself, and is a good team leader. But apart from this, it is a tragedy that with his political and military inexperience he was given the power and the resources to drag the country into dangerous waters well beyond his depth. His fitness to tackle the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s reality are indicated by the following (p.211) from Gunaratne’s For a Sovereign State:

“I [Gunaratne] told Ravi everything I had in my mind. He listened carefully to my theory for the defence of Sri Lanka. He was later going
to implement all my suggestions. He was however not familiar with place names in Sri Lanka. Padaviya, Tantirimale, Morawewa, were explained to him in detail.”

This child of Colombo’s upper class with a passionate desire to defend the Buddha Sasana, was learning about the intricacies of this country from Mahaveli officials who believed that Tamil surveyors had surreptitiously changed Sinhalese place names to Tamil ones! It is, however, also a fact that it was during this period that the Army, which did not earlier have a reputation for corruption, became tremendously corrupt. In such a situation, and with such a corrupt government, Ravi Jayewardene as a man who put through several security deals would find it hard to get rid of the taint in public perception that rubs on by association. It still stands to his credit that he did not crave for the kind of power that would have been his for the asking.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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