Colombo Telegraph

War & Domination By Other Means: Postwar Tourism In The East Coast

By Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham

Dr. Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham

In one of the images that showcases the luxury and splendor that Anilana Hotel in Passikuda has to offer, we see a woman in a bikini. She could be a light skinned Sri Lankan or South Asian, or a well-tanned foreigner. Her cosmopolitan globalness makes her a universal sexual figure. She is lying back on a lounge chair, sun-glasses on, sex appeal on full blast, soaking it all in and looking in the direction of the camera. What caught my attention about this image is that her chair is not just by the beach, but appears to be in the water, so it looks like she is floating. Secondly, there is a Sri Lankan in the image (his identity seems another version of the global “local server”), in sarong and shirt, walking away after having served her. While many of the other images advertising the splendor of Passikuda show you only empty, pristine beaches, where all local populations have been cleansed from the landscape, in this image, he is allowed in as a visual fantasy of all that is on offer. We only see his back and a tray on his shoulder. He is diminished in size compared to the focus of the image on her. The message conveyed by these two bodies is telling of post-war development and tourism in Passikuda. Besides the simple fact that walking in the water with a sarong all the way down, having to hold on to a tray may be an arduous task, his retreating body suggests many other things. Perhaps he has offered her sex as one of the services he provides along with the drink? Perhaps this is the fantasy of the tourist industry there, to make all working class and poor Sri Lankans serve the local and global wealthy? Either way, his complete “upright” (pun intended) servicing of her and her post-serviced, on her back, ecstasy tells us a lot about neoliberal development in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.

Post-war Sri Lanka advertised “development” as a means to a lasting peace for minorities of the North and East. Such promises of peace and rights through development began soon after LTTE as the GoSL allied with the break away LTTE group, the Karuna faction, to regain control of the East from the LTTE. The push to consolidate the East for development, called “Eastern Re-Awakening” can only be a euphemism that hides the extra-ordinary violence that was necessary to consolidate the East under state control. Literally hundreds of Tamils died as the LTTE and the State fought to control the East. Peace in the East then has been delivered through violence and oppression, and is synonymous with violence rather than its opposite.

In the post-war context, promises of peace and development too are carried out within a context of burying these histories of violence, and through domination of the Eastern people by private-militarized capital, often with a Sinhala face. To explore this situation, I focus on some of the changes that are occurring in Passikuda, though Passikuda illuminates a general condition of the relations between ethnicity and neoliberal forms of development. Neoliberalism, popularly called liberalization or open economic policies in Sri Lanka seems to be the only imaginary available to the state for development at this moment, telling us something of how our very capacities to dream of alternative futures is being robbed from us. So it is in Passikuda, where within a mere five years, 15 hotels have sprung up while everywhere I looked more were in the making. Passikuda is being sold, as is Sri Lanka, as the new tourist destination for the wealthy of the world. The nature of the ongoing process of development can only be called “accumulation by dispossession,” a term that describes how capitalism reproduces profit by dispossessing others of the commons through privatization, theft and forcible eviction. It is the process by which non-commodified spheres, such as the air, water, forests, beaches, are made profitable. Accumulation by dispossession is David Harvey’s term to explain how something akin to primitive accumulation can repeat itself over historical time, not simply during a period of transition from feudalism to capitalism. Hence, while contemporary development in the East must be understood in the context of general patterns of land-grabbing carried out elsewhere in the country, in the context of a post-war situation, ethnic tensions are exacerbated by these processes.

Let me first note down the stories of some of the fishermen in Passikuda/Kalkuda to illuminate how development is domination and the continuation of war by other means occurs.

Domination During the War

The fishing community in Kalkuda/Passikuda is largely Tamil, though historically there has been a Sinhala village called Wellavara, which was located in close proximity to the Tamil villages. In fact, a number of these Sinhala villagers have married Tamil women and today live among the Tamil fishermen in Kalkuda. While the older generations remember some 2 or 3 hotels that existed on the beach before the war, for most of them Passikuda beach was their fishing ground as far back as their village histories could recall,though the war tested their access to it.

During the war, the fishing communities there were targeted and harassed by both the military/navy and the LTTE. As many of them told me, if they were too friendly with the army/navy, the LTTE would harass them. One of them recalled how two young women seemed to be close to some soldiers, gave them water, and for that the LTTE shot them. Hence, while the state forces were ever present in the area, at night the LTTE would visit the villages to discipline the fishermen. If the army ever suspected the villagers of supporting the militants, a similar fate would meet them. Again, they recall how some of their fellow fishermen were shot as LTTE supporters. Often, they would sleep on the roofs of their houses for fear of state and separatist fighting.

Other forms of intimidation were,

  • being constantly monitored by state forces so that the fishermen had difficulty accessing the sea. On any given day, the military could refuse to let them fish, even when their access to the sea was already controlled through passes and checkpoints. Hence, when tensions were high, fishermen lost their capacities to earn a living.
  • fishermen had to go to sea by 5 PM and could only return at 6 AM. As they said to me, “even if one of us were sick, or dying, we just had to stay out the whole night. If we tried to come in earlier, we would be shot. While we were out there, LTTE boats would come and steal some of our gas.”
  • Having to drag their boats and nets from place to place on the orders of the army/navy, and being beaten if they refused to follow orders quickly enough.
  • Of course the massive disruptions of 1990 were ever present in their minds. It was also the moment when the LTTE expelled the Sinhala villagers from the coast in Passikuda.

If such forms of violence occurred over the decades of war, patterns of development in Passikuda in the post-war context continue violence in similar ways.

Present day Passikuda: Accumulation by Dispossession

I want to quickly add that the first attempt to privatize these pristine beaches occurred in the aftermath of the tsunami. As some of the fishermen affirmed to me, some of their villages were moved inside as the 200-400 meter ban on beach reconstruction was imposed in the post-tsunami period to clear local populations from prime properties. Naomi Klein documents this well in her chapter on Sri Lanka in Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Soon after the war ended in 2009, the Tourist Board visited Passikuda and parceled out plots of land for private lease. The beach, which belongs to us collectively, and is primarily a right of the local fishing communities, was privatized and leased to hotels. Despite the Coastal Conservation Department (CCD) rules for Passikuda, which prohibit building hotels within 40 meters of the closest foliage to be found by the beach, hotels have sprung up violating these restrictions. As an officer of the CCD told me, they tried to issue demolition orders to some of these hotels, such as Amaya and Anilana, but were prevented from doing so by politicians in power.

To-date 15 hotels have sprung up even as one of those, Laya Waves, is run by the military. Everywhere I looked more and more hotels are being constructed. It is ironic that 5 years after the war, large numbers of Tamil people still have not been resettled in the East, have no running water, electricity, toilets or employment; but resources such as water, power, sewage, to construct these luxury hotels were immediately made available.

What of our fishing folk who perhaps thought that they may now finally have unrestricted access to the sea as the war had ended? Well, new checkpoints, security officers and regimes of exclusion and control have emerged with a corporate-military face.

The fishermen were moved immediately after the war to a small corner next to the Maalu Maalu hotel. This is a small piece of property, perhaps 20 perches. They were told that they should not fish anywhere else so as to preserve the scenic empty beauty of the sea for tourists. As one of the fishermen told me “they do not think we smell good, and they think we are dirty,” reminding us of colonial markers of local bodies as primitive. Even though they were promised these 20 perches as theirs, today this spot too is coveted by a prospective hotel developer. So, they are being told to move once again. The local community’s right to these beaches and the sea as a commons is quickly being privatized. Because they have no deed to show they have ownership rights, they may be evicted again. Because their place on the beach is so precarious, they have not been able to develop structures to keep their nets, some food, or for shelter during the rains.

The poorest of the fisher folk catch fish using nets and walking in to the coral rich beaches. Fish come to these shallow waters and are the staple for some fishermen. Since, local fishermen may destroy the uninterrupted tourist gaze of a pristine and empty beach, many of these fishermen are forbidden from doing this kind of fishing in front of the hotels. Furthermore, some of the hotels have destroyed the coral reefs that exist by the shore, and have dug into the sand to make their beaches deeper. Hence, sections of the coral reef have already been destroyed and dead coral continues to wash up on the shore in enormous quantities.

If these fishermen lived with the constant presence of the military/Navy harassing them, and restricting their access to the sea, such process are simply continued in the name of development. Not only is the main canteen at the public access point to the beach run by the army, the military is everywhere. A little walk down the beach and you will see military trucks with armed military or navy officers on board. A little time at a fish market, and you are sure to encounter military officers buying fish there.

Even within hotels, while military officers may not chase you away, there are private security guards standing by the beach, monitoring local populations, making sure no fishermen walk too close to tourists. One of the hotels has planted coconut trees on the beach, and has claimed everything inland from these trees to be its private property. So, no local populations can walk there, and as I tried, a security guard shooed me away.

The check-point has only changed its look, and expanded from the military to the corporation.

Ultimately, we must understand the processes of accumulation by dispossession as the contemporary face of neoliberal exploitation using the name of post-war peace and development. It is a process by which local communities are being dispossessed of the commons, and for minorities, corporate hotels are acting no differently than a Sinhala colonial power invading their spaces. In the aftermath of warfare and suffering, this looks like the newest assault by the majority on them. While, it is true that land grabbing is occurring in Sinhala areas as well, the fact that many of the hotels owners, managers and staff are Sinhala makes Tamils feel this is the continuation of war by other means. Even when construction work for hotels is carried out, large numbers of Sinhala workers are brought in from outside to do this work. Of course, these workers are probably paid a pittance, even as few Tamils are hired for this work.

In the south, people may feel that they can now access land masses previously prohibited to them. Passikuda, Arugam Bay, you name it, it is all available for pleasure and fun. Yet, such processes of pleasure-making are occurring in zones that have endured and still endure trauma and violence. The Tamil people in the East have barely had time to process the losses endured during decades of ethnic war, and yet, they are now assaulted again by corporations eager to chase them out in the name of neoliberal development.

Local populations do not share the neoliberal fantasies of the elite in Sri Lanka and the world. As one fisherman told me, “Tourism is built on a piece of melting soap. It will melt and sink all of us. Fishing and agriculture are built on permanent foundations. It is our stability and will endure.” He understands well the speculative, destructive forces of neoliberal development carried out by Sinhala entrepreneurs and its unsustainability!!

*Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Colgate University, USA.

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