By Emil van der Poorten –
The disintegration of a large plantation adjacent to us, resulted, first, in the plunder of timber trees, rubber, cocoa and other less-valuable large vegetation, followed by a mass “squatter intrusion,” for lack of a better term, on what was from the time of the “coffee days” an orthodox, commercial plantation.
What were initially very primitive shacks have grown into modest houses financed primarily by female adults remitting funds from, basically, is their slave-labour in the Persian Gulf.
One of the early dramatic events in this state of affairs was when a businessman from a small town some kilometers away from these squatter colonies brought in a group of thugs to evict those who had made little parcels of this land their domicile for about the past quarter century. He claimed to have title to a substantial block of this land consequent to “purchase” from a member of the Buddhist clergy who had himself “bought” the land from a Member of Parliament of the time who had acquired it from the Land Reform Commission or the State Plantations Corporation when the latter had simply walked away from the formal plantation that it was managing. An interesting devolution of title stemming from totally dodgy conduct, to say the least! That episode which threatened to end in murder and mayhem had a relatively happy ending when we assisted the intruders to escape with their vehicle from an irate mob. My account of this little episode was published in the print media subsequently. That train of events appeared to have been settled to the satisfaction of the settlers/squatters by some kind of Reconciliation Board which held that the occupants had title by virtue of prescriptive right if for no other reason.
For lack of a better term, I shall seek to describe what followed over the last couple of years as a kind of “social development,” though the term suggests progress rather than the retrogression in social conduct that has occurred.
The clots of settlers can, essentially, be separated by ethnicity, the Sinhalese, by and large, living in groups separate from those of Tamil ethnicity. One thing both groups have in common is the depredations of parasitic elements who seldom leave their homes for employment but choose, instead, to steal the produce from the lands adjacent to where they live from which the resident owners have gone for the day to work elsewhere primarily as helpers in the building trades. NOTHING, literally, is safe from their depredations. Pepper, coffee, coconuts and jak fruit (what the monkeys and giant squirrels haven’t destroyed! Even such things as cooking utensils and hand tools are considered fair game by those who loiter in the area while their neighbours journey on foot or by bus to daily employment away from their homes.
Of course, some of those of greater entrepreneurial bent, engage in what is one of rural Sri Lanka’s major cottage industries – making bootleg liquor, “kasippu.” Here, again, by virtue of the haphazard settlement which has prevented anything resembling acceptable motorable road access, law enforcement of even the most sporadic and rudimentary nature, is next to impossible.
Result? The emergence of a group(s) of petty criminals who are beyond the reach of a police force seeking to deal with their law-breaking in a formal manner.
This state of affairs has worsened to the point where some of these individuals and families have begun to terrorise their neighbours, threatening them with physical violence and sometimes carrying through on those threats if they try to resist their depredations.
In a strange way, the last couple of years of law enforcement, where justice was dispensed in a relatively even-handed and orthodox manner has led to a worsening situation for those who choose to live by the book. It seems that the time when “justice” was dispensed arbitrarily at the whim and fancy of those in uniform had restricted the thieves and drunks because there was always the lurking fear that a victim might have enough influence with a politician to have that politician direct the police to beat up or incarcerate the miscreant.
Strange are the results of justice being reintroduced even to a limited extent!
Where is all this going to end? I would suggest that it will end in extreme violence when some victim cannot take the theft of his meager belongings, the sexual harassment of the female occupants of his household or the physical threat he is constantly under from drunken louts. Even the worm will turn and the people who are the victims right now are not in that category because of cowardice. They “grin and bear” because they are too busy earning a livelihood and looking after their dependents to retaliate. However, it is unrealistic to expect them to continue in this manner because these are not invertebrates, just hard-working, decent rural folk, and will, very soon, break and react with dreadful consequences.
The real tragedy will be when they are pushed beyond endurance and commit a capital or major crime and are removed from society until they are found not guilty of the most serious of offences, released without punishment or with mild legal consequences. In the meantime, the real victims of this state of affairs – their dependents – will, in fact, be punished for the transgressions of the real aggressor.
The foregoing is a sad state of affairs, indeed, but one which can only be dealt with by a sea-change in the current reality. Is there hope of such a dramatic change? You tell me.