By Emil van der Poorten –
Vesak this year has proven more eventful than any I’ve experienced in many years past, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons.
Being a long week-end and with another more personal occasion to celebrate, we had a house full of visitors, close family mostly.
After the usual pre-lunch libations and a typical celebratory Sri Lankan meal, most retired for the post-lunch siesta typical of the tropics, waking refreshed for tea. Not so long after this we were jolted by two strangers running into our garage/car port and I ended up with an urgent summons from those nearest to the parked vehicles to come deal with what seemed like a potentially violent conflict.
The two individuals, Sinhalese by the sounds of it, claimed that there was a mob in pursuit of them and they were seeking our protection. Given the fact that we live in anything but urban circumstances, with the closest house about half a kilometer away, it was hard to envisage a “mob” in pursuit of two “victims.”
A quick question or two elicited the information that the “victims” had arrived with some potential buyers to show them land that they (the “victims”) claimed to own adjacent to mine. This was land on which squatters had, over probably twenty years plus, constructed very basic housing and in which they were continuing to raise their families, some of the children now in their teens.
Given the pandemonium that seemed to come from outside our gate which is about 75 metres away from the garage, I decided to see what was going on.
What first met my eyes was a small truck and what seemed like some of its passengers surrounded by a very angry mob, many seemingly the worse for wear in terms of alcohol (ab)use! Several of the locals were people I knew quite well, so I inquired what the hullabaloo was all about. Out of the sometimes-incoherent babble, emerged a tale of intruders led by those claiming to own the land (one at least of whom had sought our protection) entering the land on which the residents now lived, loudly proclaiming that they would chase the current occupants away, torch their homes and give the potential new owners (who were with them) uncontested occupancy of that turf. The potential buyers were Muslims. To provide a potentially volatile ethnic cocktail, the ENTIRE mob that had the intruders surrounded was TAMIL! To add to the volatility of the situation, the Tamils claimed that the intruders had already assaulted their young children in an effort to terrorise the families and drive them off the land.
In any event, I thought we had succeeded in defusing the situation when we persuaded the resident “colonists” to return to their homes which were about a kilometer away and persuaded the vehicle and its occupants to return whence they’d come, something they did with significant haste, destroying the shrubs and flowering plants we’d raised with great difficulty near our gate! By the time I returned to our garage/car port, one of the two men who had sought our protection had disappeared. In any event, I was able to get more information from the man who still looked to us for protection.
He said he had bought 18 acres of land from a man who claimed to have title to it from the Land Reform Commission. I was relatively familiar with the history of this land because it constituted part of the “ancestral” plantation of my grandfather which, to cut a long story short, had been through an uncle’s ownership to a state plantation corporation under the Land Reform Act. That entity had collapsed under the weight of massive incompetence and corruption and the resident workers who were, without any prior warning, left with no employment and, literally, without a roof over their heads, simply squatted on the land and built shacks in which to live, abodes which assumed a more permanent form as the years went by. A separate dissertation would be required to do justice to the history of those latter-day refugee camps for the internally displaced workers of this part of the Central Province, but time and space do not permit an exploration of that time!
Some of the land, pretty much all of it, if one were to believe the oral history that prevails in this neighbourhood, was given to/appropriated by a couple of UNP MPs and their friends at the time that the collapse occurred. After they had divested the land of its valuable timber, very few, if any, of these chose to do anything with what had fallen into their laps, and abandoned it to the dispossessed workers and neighbouring villagers who moved in and seemed to have acquired prescriptive right to it by virtue of their period of occupation. In fact, many of them had acquired rudimentary recognition of their ownership of the land by the Land Reform Commission if local anecdote was to be believed. Except for one individual, however, it appeared that none of the group who were invaded on that particular day had anything resembling a deed of ownership, resting their claims on the receipts they had obtained from the local government for payment of acreage or land taxes over a a period of close to 20 years. Also, what differentiated this from other groups on this land was the fact that every single one of them belonged to the group sometimes referred to as “Tamils of Indian Origin.” You’d have to be particularly insensitive not to realize that there was some connection between their ethnicity and their plight on that day!
To return to the narrative, after we thought we’d successfully dispersed the protagonists, we felt it was safe enough to let the man who had sought refuge with us return to his motor bike which he’d parked close to where the melee had occurred and which we had, by dint of bellowing at the local mob, saved from being smashed up. He rode away and we thought we’d seen the last of this Vesak diversion.
That, unfortunately, was not to be.
Some of our visitors chose to take a hike down the approach road and, before they’d gone very far, came upon a group of “foot soldiers” travelling up the hill, armed with wooden staves and similar weaponry. Three vehicles packed with several dozen passengers, one a police 4-WD with two policemen in it, were immediately behind the “infantry.” It was obvious that another bout of warfare on our doorstep lay in store for us. Thanks to cellphone technology, those of us still at home were warned immediately. We could do little but ensure that our gate was secured to the extent possible.
What we pieced together subsequently was that the group had disembarked from their vehicles at our gate and proceeded up to the colony and wrought havoc on the residents, their houses, one’s motor bike etc. until the two policemen had prevailed upon them to stop.
I was informed that half a dozen of the Tamils were arrested by the two policemen for drunk and disorderly conduct and locked up in police cells overnight and will be charged later in the week in the local magistrate’s court. Given my observation of the state of inebriation of several of that group, this appeared justified. However, it does not appear that the long arm of the law had reached any of the invading force – both the initial group and those that followed shortly thereafter. Shades of what happens when the Bodu Bala Sena launches one of its “actions!”
I cannot but remark on the alacrity with which the local constabulary responded to the summons from those who provoked the entire brouhaha in the first place. It was impressive, to say the least, particularly since it was Vesak day and most of the personnel were on leave. As a resident of the area, I hope I am not being overly optimistic in the expectation that this heralds a new era in the matter of police response times and that some of us might expect our local custodians of law and order to respond as swiftly when we have cause to seek their intervention! However, our over-riding concern is the level of violence that seems to be the rule rather than the exception and the fact that it seems to be driven by a belief that such conduct is acceptable if one can get away with it which, in this instance, seemed to be the case with not one of the “invaders” being charged with any offence!