11 November 2008

Letter 4.17

The water situation became critical: the amount coming from the reservoir was insufficient to reach me -- it got absorbed by the mud in the channel -- and I had to trek to the well for bathing and washing, hauling back for drinking and to keep alive at least part of the garden. Finally yesterday we had a good rain, which refilled the pond -- it had emptied to within a few inches of bottom, which I left for the benefit of the tadpoles (who will turn into mosquito-consuming frogs) -- and there are a few inches of water in the reservoir, which I open for an hour or so a day, giving me perhaps 30-40 gallons: enough now to keep things going (the garden -- most of it managed to survive -- consumes the bulk of this.) With luck and care it should last about 2 weeks. The monsoon normally starts (gradually) about the middle of September. So if it is not late, or if we get another good shower, we'll make it. It's very difficult for all the people, most of them more than me. Some women have to walk a long way for water, and usually have to haul it uphill, even for their cooking. And of course tea production also goes down, with loss of income to the estate and to the workers. This is one of the driest years on record.

I did manage to save all the vegetables, and in fact have just harvested my peas. I planted 15 seeds (all that I had), and 3 months later harvested 105, all of which I will use for further planting. This is a 7-fold increase in 3 months, a very substantial return on my investment. If I were to continue at this rate for another 3 years I would have approximately 1,383,936,400,000 peas. This is more than 250 peas for every man, woman, and child in the world. If each of them were to plant their 250 peas and replant their 7-fold quarterly increase for two years, then 5 years from now every person on the planet would have 1,641,200,20 peas enough to solve the food crisis for decades. It's amazing that no one has thought of this yet. Or perhaps a very few geniuses have tried to indicate where the future lies, but only by indirect suggestion. Tolstoy, for example, in his classic novel, War and Peas.

Recently the curfew was advanced to as early as 6 PM, due to some incidents in the North -- relocated Tamils attacking isolated Sinhalese -- apparently coinciding with the one-month anniversary of the outbreak of the riots. But there have been no further incidents in Upcountry or Colombo. About 10 days ago I was passing through Bandarawela and saw the extensive damage; perhaps up to 20% of the shops I saw were empty blackened shells, exactly like WW2 bombed-out buildings. Elsewhere it's business as usual, or nearly so. Steps have been taken against hoarders and profiteers, so most goods are available and prices for staples are now about the same as before the riots. Many Tamil shopkeepers, forewarned by reports from elsewhere, were able to remove some of their stock to safe places (and to claim insurance loss on it afterwards as well).

A friend from a village just outside Bandarawela says one Tamil couple was killed in his village. One night someone threw a rock through their window and the Tamils, who it seems owned a shotgun, fired upon the person (missing him). A Sinhalese crowd gathered and set fire to the house, which burnt to the ground. He doesn't know whether they were burnt to death or killed while trying to escape. Only a few hours before this incident my friend had had tea with the couple.

Judging from what I witnessed and the reports of others during the riots of '71, government estimates of casualties, homeless refugees, etc. will be off by a factor of 8 to ten fold. For example, at least 50 Tamils accused of being terrorists were massacred in prison when -- according to the guards -- Sinhalese prisoners overpowered the guards and killed the Tamils, the guards being helpless to intervene. The government seems inclined to accept the guards' assertion without a serious investigation. And I have heard private estimates of reliable eye-witnesses that place the Bandarawela and Badulla tolls at well above the official numbers, as well as reports of isolated incidents that almost surely did not get included in the government figures. So I think we can safely assume that at least 3,000 people were killed, and that at the height of the riots there were at least 200,000 homeless refugees. These figures don't approach the '71 figures. But the property damage is much higher than in '71.

Every Tamil I've spoken with says he has friends who have died and I've heard numerous tales of narrow escapes. The Tamils are still very much afraid, and most of the Estate Tamils hereabouts continue to sleep in the tea bushes rather than in the lines -- the drought continues, so they keep dry -- and to keep their valuables hidden. At least 75% of the ET's seriously intend to return to India, where they -- or more often their parents or grandparents -- came from. As difficult as their lives are here economically, they will be yet more difficult in Tamil Nadu (the South Indian state where most of them would go, and which is poor even by Indian standards); but there they will at least be among their kin (who may not be overjoyed to have them, but could not refuse) and will no longer need to fear from outraged Sinhalese mobs. That there will be other fears no less fearful is, at present, not of importance.

Obviously the tea industry -- Sri Lanka's biggest earner of foreign exchange -- depends upon a superfluity of cheap labor, and if even as quarter of the workers go the situation will be very difficult. If anything like 75% leave the estates will be devastated. But herein Sri Lanka is in a difficult position, for the government has steadfastly maintained for decades that the Estate Tamils are legally Indian citizens, not Sri Lankans, and has encouraged their migration by making things difficult for them. A superfluity of labor is needed, but there has been an over-abundance. Now it will be difficult for the government to prevent vast numbers from leaving (though they will not allow to leave those few who have obtained Sri Lanka citizenship).

The tourist industry is also hard-hit. There are no tourists in Ella these days (normally August is a prime month, for French and German workers take their holidays in August and it is mid-winter in Australia). The expectation is that the trade will take 4-5 months to normalize.

The government seems to have hastily forced through an amendment to the constitution making it illegal to advocate separtism. Since it is of the essence of freedom of speech that even the most unpopular views may be espoused (and that only physical deeds, not verbal ones, can be made illegal) this means that Sri Lanka now has taken a step away from liberty and towards authoritarianism. Since separtism is a view espoused by a significant minority -- the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) is -- or was -- the largest opposition party in Parliament and separtism was (is?) their major plank -- the step is a large one. It can be argued that nothing less would have sufficed to quell the outrage of Sinhalese at the effort to divide the island and that had this not been done the damage would have been much worse, but it can be replied that damage to property cannot be compared with damage to the principles of liberty, and undertaking such a serious change while influenced by the heat of the moment is a rash method of administering a nation, and that in any case to muzzle opinion only drives it underground, where roots can spread and deepen, resulting in eventual difficulties which will prove more costly than what is supposed to have been saved. Which is not to suggest that I think partition to be a sensible move -- it makes no sense geographically, economically, culturally, or esthetically, and would not correct the injustices of which the JT's complain but only perpetuate them in an altered guise (it would tip the scales of Injustice who, as we know, is blind) -- but only that to do outrage to such a precious institution as freedom of speech is yet less sensible. But people seldom appreciate such freedoms until they lose them.

Two further problems will be involved with the military and the Parliament. The reason the Sinhalese were enabled to do as much damage as was done was firstly because of the half-hearted effort of the army to stop them (even in Diyatalawa -- just beyond Bandarawela -- where both army and airforce have major bases, every Tamil shop was razed), understandable in light of their long-running battle against the Tigers, though not therefore condonable, and secondly because the army is divided along political lines, and many officers and enlistees who oppose the UNP government saw the riots as a possibility to topple that government. These soldiers either abetted the rioters or at least did so little to stop them that their actions were correctly taken as a green light.

The riots can only further fragment the army and raises the possibility of the government control over the army weakening, which leads to further future danger of the country being beset by a coup, or an attempted one.

The situation in Parliament compounds the danger. Traditionally, the two major parties have been UNP and SLFP, which alternately won elections. But the SLFP became fragmented due to internal quarrels (the Bandaranaikas run the SLFP as Mrs. Gandhi's clan runs India's Congress Party, and the parallels, including those between Mrs. B's son and Mrs. G's, are striking) and the SLFP was soundly trounced in '77 due also to their having manipulated a two year extension of their term. UNP obtained a 5/6 majority, enabling them to do as they wished, and the TULF became the major opposition party.

Earlier this year the government forced through an amendment to the constitution enabling it to hold a referendum on the question whether to extend the life of this Parliament for a second 6-year term. They won -- it was the first time any government in Sri Lanka has been returned to office -- due to the popularity of the President (Jayawardene) -- far more popular than his party -- and the lack of a viable opposition, and therefore by a majority vote retained a 5/6 majority in Parliament.

Now the TULF, because it advocates separtism, has been made illegal, and its members cannot sit in Parliament (nor, if they are individually convicted of advocating separtism, would they retain any civil rights, including the right to practice a licensed profession which, of course, includes law).

And three other minor parties (including the co munists) have been accused of fomenting troubles and encouraging rioters, apparently, hoping to topple the government. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of their leaders and deputies -- some have gone underground -- and so those parties too are probably destroyed.

If the government has presented any evidence for these charges I am unaware of it, though I've heard and read statements by a number of ministers making such charges without offering evidence. Therefore it seems that Sri Lanka is now in danger of becoming a one-party state. UNP and SLFP are ideologically more differentiable than say, Republicans and Democrats; but even if they were not, the danger of a one-party state is that there is simply no incentive to govern for anyone's benefit other than their own, whereas a two-party or multi-party system, even when it's just a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee (or is it Tweedledee and Tweedledum?), generates a concern for the electorate out of simple self-interest. If a one-party state should befall Sri Lanka the country's hopes for improvement will be lost in a quagmire of corruption and mendacity.

And of course there is still the problem of the Tigers. Since the Tamils tend to regard themselves as the victims of Sinhalese hatred and in-fighting (their view of themselves is myopic, as are most such views) we can expect new recruits for the Tigers, and further activity. The only possible way in which Sri Lanka could be partitioned would be if India intervened (as she did against Pakistan in '72, leading to the creation of Bangladesh), and India would only intervene if it were forced to do so (at least as long as the present government rules in New Delhi; other governments my be less fastidious about such matters, and obviously Mrs. Gandhi will not rule forever). And the only way India could be forced to intervene would be if the Tamils were to come to such a pass that there was no political alternative to military intervention. This would mean the slaughter of thousands or tens of thousands of Tamils and it may be the strategy of the Tigers to commit such outrages as to provoke the Sinhalese to embark on such a slaughter. It sounds like -- and is -- madness, but the world has seen crazier things. Therefore, the Tamils who support the Tigers may be paying to have their throats cut.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention about the aftermath of the riots is that the government has said that it will help rebuild industries and homes -- nearly all Tamil-owned -- destroyed by the riots and fires. But (here's the catch) it will thereby become part owner of all such industry (the exact percentage to be determined by -- of course -- the government), and under the guise of establishing an architectural coherence to the reconstruction -- a joke, but a bad one, since 1) Colombo is a hodgepodge architecturally. 2) Tamil houses are found scattered amidst this hodge-podge, not in a ghetto-like area. 3) No such plan exists nor could such a plan be produced in a reasonable time -- they have declared themselves to be temporarily the owners of all property under repair, so that they can ensure that all reconstruction proceeds according to their plans, and owners will be billed according to whatever the government sees fit to charge for its services and can recover their property upon settlement of the bill. The Tamils, naturally enough, think that the government is trying to get what the looters missed. I hope I have misunderstood this, because if I have not, and it is as I report, then it's an incredibly stupid act which will have serious repercussions in the future.

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