By Lakmali Hemachandra and Ravi Tissera –
“Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace Worse Things kept happening” ― Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Flying Fish, a movie about the monstrosity of war was banned because it was claimed to demoralize the government forces and depicted them in a negative light. Weliweriya proves that we do not need films and literature to understand how cruel, inhuman and destructive wars are, but most of all it proves against whom wars are fought, from Nandikadal to Baghdad. It is interesting that the Army and the government is playing the same tune it did in 2009, the war was grander and the damage was larger, but the response of the government after slaughtering Tamils and the response after killing Sinhalese is eerily and tragically similar. There is a lesson we must learn today, a lesson that we should have learnt long ago and a lesson that some pretend to not know.
The fight in Weliweriya was for clean water, the people of five villages led by a Buddhist monk took to the streets for six days to urge the government to protect their right to clean water claiming that the wells in area was contaminated by the waste disposed by a factory producing rubber gloves. It is a classic battle between people and the corporate, between nature and development, between democracy and neo liberalism. The government’s brutal attack on the innocent civilians in Weliweriya illustrates which side the government is on and it is not yours or mine regardless of whether we are Sinahala or Tamil, it is not of the seventeen year old Akila and nineteen year old Ravishan who died caught up in the military attack on the villagers, it is not of more than 60 people who are injured and it is not of the undisclosed number of innocent people who got death instead of clean water. The massacre at Weliweriya exposes the enemy like it has never been seen before, it makes it painfully clear where this country is heading and it gives hope to people like us who believe that we should continue to dream of justice and equality in spite of the brutal oppression that forbids us to dream.
The number of civilians who died during the last stages of war is alleged to be more than 40000, but the government claims they adopted a zero casualty policy and no civilians were murdered. With the Tamil community, including the Tamil Diaspora vehemently denying this claim, somewhere deep in our souls, we the Sinhalese too must have questioned the truth of the government’s side of the story. The humanitarian war that was waged to provide water for the people in the North was more sinister than it was portrayed to be, people were murdered, and houses burnt lives were destroyed in the name of peace and humanity. People in the south ate kiri bath at every junction, erected humongous cut outs of the Rajapaksa brothers and General Sarath Fonseka and we celebrated when the mothers in Jaffna were looking for their children, when women in Jaffna were crying for their husbands, when children in Jaffna were waiting for their parents. The country was lost in the jubilant spirit of the war, the President became a King, the Defense Secretary became invincible, the soldiers became heroes and we the people became our own enemies doomed to cheer the death of our brothers and sisters and doomed to believe every word of the Rajapaksa regime that would in the coming years plunder the nation and call it development, murder students and call it accidents, violate democracy and call it patriotism and murder the people who dared to voice their dissent.
Four years later when the people of Weliweriya asked for water, the same water that started the humanitarian battle in Mawilaru the same Army that supposedly saved the Tamils, attacked the Civilians on the roads of Weliweriya . The accounts by the villagers claims that they were made to kneel down while the Army beat them up, that even the Church that gave refugee to the escaping people were attacked, the total number of the dead is not revealed and the Army refuses any indiscriminate attack on the people. It would be a bad joke if it was not tragic because we heard this story before, in which the Army controlled rebels and saved the people, the churches and hospitals were not touched by our disciplined forces, and no civilian was murdered indiscriminately.
The stories of the people who were attacked echo this bitter truth because they are stunned and flabbergasted as to why the army they prayed for and cheered for is now killing them when all they want is clean water, when all they want is one factory closed so they can live in health, their children can grow up in an healthy environment. They simply cannot understand the crime they committed, because they are not terrorists, they are the supposed rightful citizens of this country who speak the first language.
Unfortunately for the Sinhalese majority of the country, The neo liberal agenda of the government that protects the economic interests of the rich and mighty against the human rights of the majority of the people, be they Tamil or Sinhala was crystal clear when the government without taking measure to close down a factory that is abusing the environment and the health of the people, sent the military to make sure the factory was protected from the masses that surrounded it demanding its closure. The brutal attack on the people of Weliweriya was an ideological attack by a neo liberalist state on the democratic right of the people to protest. The attack is rooted in the Rajapaksa regime’s thinking that the task of the state is to protect the private corporations, not the welfare of the people and the environment, thus when people protest against this abuse of democracy where their interests are compromised for the interests of a few who will make profits on the promise of trickling it down, the state shows its true colours and attack the innocent people who are obstructing the interests of the private corporations.
The experience is not new to Sri Lanka; Sri Lankan state for the past thirty years has been operating under the false belief that when you pamper the private sector the people will reap the profits. It should be especially remembered that the interests of the private sector under the current regime cannot be separated from the interests of the Rajapaksa family because much of the Rajapaksa wealth is invested in various private businesses from hospitals to hotels. Then again, that is the nature of neo- liberalism, wealth is concentrated into the hands of a few powerful members of the society, and concentration of wealth where political power is concentrated is only natural. In spite of the popular claim that free market is efficient and democratic, many examples from countries all over the world proves that imposition of the free market model is almost all the time neither democratic nor efficient. For example Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union underwent what is known as the shock therapy, the markets were freed and most natural resources which were under the state control were sold to private individuals for a fraction of their real worth. It also created a class of rich business men, an exclusive club of few individuals known as the oligarchs and the economic power of Russia to this day lies with them. In spite of the extreme poverty that has bred prostitution and drug trafficking, Russian oligarchs continue to thrive and get richer every year. Similar stories can be found in India and China as well, in fact land acquisition by the Indian state for industry purposes results in landlessness among the poorest of its citizens, who not only lose their houses but also their agricultural land to mighty corporations. The story must ring a bell to those living in Applewatte and Laundrywatte who are being dispossessed of their houses and land so that a big Indian Corporation can use it to build apartments for the rich.
The government spokesmen from Dallas Alahapperuma to Galabodaththe Gnanasara claim there was a hidden political hand behind the protests, as if that justifies killing people on the streets. Indeed the protest in Weliweriya was a political act, it was the people of this country telling the state that they want water not casinos, the people of the country reminding the government that human beings matter not free markets, more than anything it was the people of the country, exercising their right to freedom of expression to protest, to dissent, to command the government to use the power given to them by the people for the welfare of the people.
Thomas Hobbes was the first political economist who used the word social contract, to indicate some kind of agreement between the state and the citizens. The content of the social contract has changed since then, Hobbes argued it was for security, Locke argued it was to protect property and Rawls argued it included distributive justice. However what must be remembered by everyone who frowns upon political protests against the government is that there is a contract between the state and the citizen, there is a contract between Mahinda Rajapaksa and the people in Weliweriya. The President and his government is supposed to serve the people, to provide them with water and food, education and health care, and the army that so brutally murdered innocent youth was supposed to protect them from any risk to their security.
President Rajapaksa would undoubtedly fear political activity of his subjects, because in spite of his illustrious political career and the obvious political ambitions of his son, Namal Rajapaksa, people on the streets participating in political protests, demanding the government not begging from it reminds him that the power he imagines to be eternal, has a source, the people of this country, be they Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim. It is indeed a cruel wake up call to the make believe royal family of the country that the two third majoritarian power they hold in the parliament and the faithful loyalty of the highest court in the country will never be strong enough to conquer the peoples’ power.
There are things that we must learn from Weliweriya. The people of this country must understand that when the army kills it is never for them, it has never been for them and the more we cheer the closer we get to our own destruction. Tamils in North and Sinhalese in South did not die because they were armed to hurt you and me, the normal people of the country. Forty thousand people who were killed in the last days of war were not terrorists, they were the people of this country who were tired of being ignored and oppressed, they were a people with problems of their own, different to ours but valid nevertheless.
Victims in Weliweriya ask the question, “But why us? We are not terrorists!”, but the truth is none of them were. None of the people who died in North were terrorists, they were our people who we cheered and sent to death and destruction. Those who survived are still suffering in North and the same army that killed your sons in Weliweriya is holding the gun against our Tamil brothers in Jaffna and nobody can save them, except for us. Therefore we must protest, we must protest and stop the government from killing people , we must protest against women being raped and children being abused, we must protest in support of the people who want water and food, we must protest in support of those who are being dispossessed of their lands and when we do that the people in this country will realize that our problems are the same, we share a common experience and none of us became the victors when the Sri Lankan Army conquered Nandikadal.
Weliweriya gives us hope that our people will not be deceived forever, that someday we will stand up against the cruelties that we see and hear of everyday and when that happens the constitutional dictator and his all-powerful brother will realize that the people who created them can break them, that with all the powers that were transferred in that imaginary social contract we the people reserved the right to rebel, and we were only waiting for the time to rebel.