Kath Noble

How did it come to this?

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 7, 2013

A look at why the people of Weliweriya came onto the streets in the first place

Dhammika PereraOnce again, the Government is desperately seeking an excuse. The Army has shot dead at least three people on the streets of the Gampaha district in the process of breaking up a protest. Dozens of others are still undergoing treatment for their injuries.

Unsurprisingly, it has been doing its best to put the blame on what it calls ‘subversives’ – the new terrorists. Ministers have told the press that the villagers of Weliweriya were on the verge of calling off their agitation, with the Government having agreed to close the factory that they say is responsible for polluting their water pending the outcome of tests. The Government claims that the confrontation with the Army took place only after the arrival of outsiders, who instigated the crowd to attack.

To support this version of events, we have been ‘informed’ that some months ago more than 100 workers associated with a JVP trade union were sacked by Dipped Products.

So far, so utterly predictable.

A certain section of society is ever ready to believe such conspiracy theories, and to accept that the use of massive force is either unavoidable or actually roundly deserved.

This we know for sure by now, since there have been a number of very similar incidents in the recent past – one man was killed when workers from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone took issue with plans for a pension scheme for the private sector in May 2011, and another died when Chilaw fishermen protested against the increase in fuel prices in February 2012.

Of course it is unacceptable to deploy the Army to manage demonstrations, but after the war victory there is a tendency to think that soldiers are the only ones who can get things done – in the same way as some people want the Defence Secretary to be in charge of everything from garbage collection to university curricula and teacher training to agricultural development, tourism, the reconstruction of the Vanni, the preservation of the nation’s cultural heritage and the future of the Buddha Sasana. What naivety! But this is not the most important argument, since the Police have shown that they are equally capable of killing unarmed demonstrators.

Taking issue with the absolutely extraordinary use of live ammunition seems largely pointless too, the same thing having been said many times already.

Instead, let’s think about why there was a protest in the first place.

Even if the story of JVP intervention were true, it could not have happened if the Government had responded to the concerns of the villagers in the proper manner – they would not have come onto the streets.

The complaint against Dipped Products for releasing chemicals into the environment was not made last week. The villagers have been concerned about their water supply for some time, and they had petitioned the authorities on several occasions.

If a timely and transparent investigation had been conducted, the accuracy of the charge would have been ascertained long ago. Action could have been taken.

Why was it not done?

Well, one cannot help but think that it is because the factory is owned by Hayleys, which is controlled by Dhammika Perera.

All regimes have their favourite millionaires, but the current administration with its utter lack of concern for even keeping up appearances has blurred the boundaries between the public and private sectors more than ever before. Dhammika Perera – a man who by his own admission controls 10% of Sri Lanka’s publicly listed companies – was in 2007 appointed as the Chairman of the Board of Investment. In his first press conference, he declared that the Board of Investment had been too focused on attracting foreign investors. He said that he wanted to give locals the same benefits. No kidding!

How can we be surprised at the pathetically low level of tax revenue in Sri Lanka when corporate bosses are put in charge of deciding who gets tax holidays?

And please don’t dare to imagine that these are the only capable people in the country!

Dhammika Perera once explained to this newspaper how he started off in business. It was 1987, he was 19 years old and his mother had given him Rs. 500 to buy a pair of shoes. Instead, he spotted an opportunity to ‘invest’. He lent the money to a pavement hawker who used to sit outside his uncle’s restaurant in Pettah in return for a share of his profits. According to Dhammika Perera, this brought him Rs. 200 per day for months – a total of Rs. 74,000.

What is this if not appalling exploitation?

He used his windfall to acquire the slot machines that eventually made him a ‘casino king’ – he now owns three of the four licensed outfits in Colombo, for whose further development Beira Lake is soon going to be made into a no-go area for us ordinary mortals.

The fourth casino is the one that is going into partnership with billionaire James Packer, who apparently can’t afford to pay taxes either.

No wonder Sri Lanka can’t afford to maintain its free health and education systems!

Meanwhile, by the way, Dipped Products has recorded an increase in profits of a massive 40% in the first quarter of this year.

On what basis did it sack more than 100 workers, as the Government has been telling us to make its excuse for the crackdown by the Army a little more credible? Isn’t it illegal to get rid of employees simply because they are members of a trade union, whether associated with the JVP or otherwise?

Why wasn’t it prevented?

Dhammika Perera claims that the secret of his success is that he personally looks into all plans before deciding on investments. Yet despite owning a couple of dozen of the nation’s biggest companies, he still has time to be Secretary to the Ministry of Transport – a position that he has held since he left the Board of Investment in 2010.

Of course he’s not the only businessman to have become so unhealthily close to the Government. There are many.

The neglect of the complaint against Hayleys that brought the people of Weliweriya onto the streets was no aberration. It has become the rule.

Unlike with Ranil Wickremasinghe, the prioritisation of corporations over citizens is not ideological. The Government doesn’t bother to think about what it is doing. It simply asks who are its friends and who are its enemies, and decisions are taken accordingly. There isn’t really any such thing as ‘policy’ – Mahinda Rajapaksa believes above all in flexibility. That means that he decides what to do on the basis of what he thinks that he can get away with.

This sounds democratic, but it is a very dangerous thing so long as politics in Sri Lanka remains uncompetitive.

Tragedies can keep happening. The people of the Gampaha district may be appalled by the way in which they have been treated, but they will probably still vote for the Government.

This article was not published by The Island.

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