By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…the truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it.” – Margaret Heffernan (Dare to Disagree)[i]
First they came for pavement traders and unauthorised vendors. Hundreds of thousands lost their livelihoods.
Then they came for legally constituted small businesses. The first step was taken last year, when the UDA demolished shops on one side of Bastian Mawatha, Pettah. The owners were given scant notice (just 24 hours) and no alternate premises.
At least this gross abuse of power did not go unnoticed. The media was present; voices of concern were raised[ii].
Currently shops on the other side of Bastian Mawatha are being demolished. They too are legal structures, built by a previous administration and rented out to small-entrepreneurs. Familiar landmarks in Pettah, they sell a variety of goods, from telephones and handbags to apples and oranges.
The UDA seems to have developed a new procedure to get rid of inconvenient structures/people. No pre-warnings are given, probably to prevent organised resistance and legal action. Instead the UDA launches lightening operations, as if the victims are not rate-paying citizens but enemy-combatants.
The Rajapaksas are in a hurry. Much needs to be done, to turn parts of Pettah and Fort into the new gambling hub. Bastian Mawatha is located at the end of the designated gambling-zone. It must be spruced up, for the viewing pleasure of international gamblers who are expected to flock to this resplendent isle.
So the ordinary shops must go, even though it means destroying legitimate Lankan businesses and depriving tens of thousands of Lankan citizens of a livelihood.
Many of the victimised shop owners would have come from rural areas, most would have voted for the Rajapaksas at previous elections; all would have cooked milk-rice, lighted crackers and danced in the streets when the Eelam War ended, without sparing a thought for the civilian victims.
Now it is their turn to vanish from the public eye, to become non-victims.
The art of rendering human victims invisible was perfected in North-Eastern battle zones and ‘Welfare Villages’. Today that tried and tested method is being implemented in the heart of Colombo, with devastating success.
Unlike last year, the current demolitions are barely making news. When they do, the shops are dismissively – and apocryphally – described as unauthorised structures[iii].
That Rajapaksa construct, ‘Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian-casualties’ turned all dead Tamils, including old people and babies, into Tigers, by definition. Similarly, the development drive of the Rajapaksas is turning all its victims to illegals and undesirables, who deserve neither consideration nor sympathy.
The unethical and illegal demolitions in Bastian Mawatha should have made the headlines and brought the opposition out in force.
Instead, there is near total silence and inaction, indicating how far the country has regressed, morally and ethically, under Rajapaksa tutelage. We have become more racist, more fanatical and more inhumane. Our country ends on our doorstep; what happens beyond that, even to those of the same ethnic/religious community, has become a matter of indifference.
When a policeman shot dead an unarmed teenager in the US city of Ferguson, mass protests erupted. Confronted by policemen armed as if for war, some demonstrators drew comparisons between themselves and the Gazans. Many Palestinians responded by tweeting practical advice to the Ferguson demonstrators[iv]. When an American social-media user objected to the Ferguson-Gaza comparison, another responded, “I don’t think anyone is trying to compare Ferguson to Gaza; the point is solidarity and justice”[v].
Indeed; or the absence of it, as in Sri Lanka.
Anyone going past Pettah can witness the demolitions, can see the former owners searching for pieces of their lost lives amongst the debris, can sense their pain and their despair.
But there is no anger at the injustice, no solidarity with the victims.
We gave the regime a free hand in the North/East in the name of patriotism. We are giving the regime a free hand in the South in the name of development.
Illegality and injustice are at the very heart of the Rajapaksa project. We must show solidarity with its victims not just because it is the right thing to do but also because it is the wise thing to do.
What is happening to them today can happen to anyone of us tomorrow.
The Absence of Solidarity
Last week, in Oakland, USA, a broad and varied coalition of activists, ranging from American labour unions to Palestinian solidarity organisations, prevented the unloading of an Israeli ship. That first successful boycott of Israeli shipping was made possible by two critical factors – solidarity and unity[vi].
Precisely what Lankan Opposition needs; precisely what Lankan Opposition lacks.
The Opposition should have been out there in Bastian Mawatha, obstructing the illegal and unethical deeds of the UDA. Even if the demolitions could not be prevented, such resistance may have helped the opposition to win new supporters and make vitally necessary inroads into the Rajapaksa politico-electoral base.
The UNP of pre-1977 would have done precisely that. Every leading UNPer would have been there, identifying and fraternising with the victims. In stark contrast, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya failed to pay the slightest heed to the Pettah demolitions.
This indifference is nothing new. For the last several years the UNP barely reacted as the Rajapaksas dismantled a vital component of the party’s electoral base in Colombo, through the mass-eviction of low-income dwellers. Colombo’s poor have been far more resistant to the Rajapaksa magic than any other population group outside of the North. The Rajapaksas failed repeatedly to make a clean sweep of Colombo because of the political astuteness of the city’s low-income earners. Incidentally, the Rajapaksas are evicting not just illegal-dwellers but also people who have been rate-paying and voting Colombians for decades, who live not in crumbling shanties but in lower-middle class houses[vii].
The Opposition’s failure to defend this critically important anti-Rajapaksa group is indicative of its real malaise – not insufficient patriotism but indifference to the victims of Rajapaksa rule. From the North to Colombo, many poor and powerless victims of Rajapaksa rule are being ignored by the opposition. The Opposition’s failure to react to Pettah-demolitions, with a national election just months away, is but one more manifestation of this strategic political failure.
The former shop-owners victimised by the Rajapaksas will go back to their home-villages bearing a message of not just a rapacious and repressive government but also a weak and inept opposition. Such messages will encourage electoral abstentions. And abstentions will help the Rajapaksas to win.
According to media reports, North-Eastern people are seeking escape from despair in alcoholism and addiction[viii]. The South too may head in a similar anti-social direction. The regime would encourage such tendencies. After all, resistance sprouts only where there is hope. Despair causes not political activism but crime.
Only a majority-minority coalition, which encompasses all Rajapaksa victims can defeat familial rule. Only an opposition willing and able to resist injustice in all its forms and manifestations can create such a winning-coalition.
Months away from a critical national election, such an opposition seems to be conspicuous by its absence.
[iv] For instance, Mariam Barghouti, a woman from West Bank, tweeted, “Always make sure to run against the wind/to keep calm when you are tear gassed, the pain will pass, don’t rub your eyes”.