The episode in the Hambantota Port where the Navy was deployed to disperse unarmed port workers engaged in a satyagraha demanding assurances regarding job security, has graphically demonstrated aspects of the yahapalana government’s approach to development, and its vision for the country’s future. The assault of a journalist who was covering these events, by the Navy Commander attired in civvies and surrounded by armed naval personnel, got wide exposure in the media and has been widely condemned.
Parallels have been drawn with Rathupaswela where in 2013 the army was used to break up a protest by residents demanding clean water, leading to deaths of three innocents. The media are targeted in such situations in order to hide heavy-handed state action from public view, and also to intimidate them.
In the current stand-off, 483 temporary workers are demanding assurances regarding their job security in the light of the imminent take-over of Hambantota port operations by a Chinese company which will own 80% of shares in a joint venture with the government. The protest action continues even after the navy secured the release of two ships seized by the workers. The crackdown on port workers with the deployment of armed forces personnel, instead of the police or STF as might be expected, could be seen as part of the picture the government would like to project internationally as a country where authorities will take tough action in safeguarding the interests of foreign investors and foreign-funded projects. The country’s labour and other resources need to be marketed accordingly. Reports of harbour workers engaging in strikes and disrupting operations of a port, which itself happens to be a foreign-funded project site, do not fit the picture of a low-cost, docile labour force that the government would like to present in order to attract FDI. The statements made in parliament by responsible ministers were couched in terms of violation of international law, rather than a domestic issue resulting from an impending development project. State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardena called it an act of ‘piracy’ (though the incident took place on land), justifying the navy’s right to shoot.
Defending its intervention the Navy has invoked the ISPS Code (International Ship and Port Facility Code) for which it is the implementing authority. Wikipedia cites the International Maritime Organization describing the ISPS Code as “a comprehensive set of measures to enhance the security of ships and port facilities, developed in response to the perceived threats to ships and port facilities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. “Elsewhere it is described as a code developed in response to the modern-day need to deal with threats of maritime terrorism. How well do the actions of a group of youthful temporary workers at Hambantota port, engaging in protest because they are anxious about losing their jobs, fit the description of an ‘act of maritime terrorism?’
Disrupting port operations is a serious matter no doubt. But is it appropriate for a government to cite international law and unleash its armed forces on its own people to quell what is essentially a domestic labour dispute? Where is the sense of proportion in all of this? The silence of both the President and Prime Minister on these events is a matter of concern.
Apart from the Magampura Port, another 15,000 acres in Hambantota are earmarked to be handed over to the Chinese for an industrial park. Already there are reports of villagers being asked to leave their land in a process where they have not been consulted or properly informed of how they will be resettled or compensated. In the days ahead one might expect to see tough government action similar to that seen at Magampura Port, when evicted villagers staging protests over the taking over of swathes of land for the industrial park in Hambantota and large-scale projects elsewhere.
Environmentalists and social activists have expressed concerns over what they describe as a mega land-grab (‘darunu idam mankollayak’) that is in progress.
Sajeewa Chamikara, Director of the Environment Conservation Trust reckons that villagers have been dispossessed of around 200,000 acres of land by this government and its predecessor for large scale development projects. He says that environmental law and national law are being flouted in this process. In Hambantota he alleges that forcible evictions are taking place and survey operations are being carried out by District Secretaries, with police deployment in some instances, even before the required Environmental Impact Assessments are done. Chamikara was one among several speakers at a recent conference in Colombo on land issues titled ‘Road to Development or Disaster?’
It may be seen that the government’s plans to project Sri Lanka as an investor-friendly hub for international trade under its neo-liberal economic agenda, is matched by its plans to remodel the role of the military. ‘Security sector reform’ is a key item in the UNHRC resolution which the government co-sponsored. The chief of Military Intelligence Suresh Salih was recently removed from his post, reportedly in response to the demands of the head of an NGO.
Sri Lankan forces who defended the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in war hold heroic status in the eyes of the Sri Lankan people, and this is not to the liking of the resolution’s western sponsors, who would rather see them deployed in UN peace keeping operations.
(Western countries have meanwhile reduced their own commitments to these operations owing to the increasingly dangerous nature of missions in the world’s trouble spots.) Aligning the country with western strategic interests, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has declared that the SL Navy must prepare for the role of protecting international trade routes ‘from the Maldives to the Strait of Malacca.
’ Though these radical reforms are not being subjected to public discussion as they should, government actions and statements suggest that the Sri Lankan military is being groomed for some vaguely-articulated ‘international role.’
The recent visit to Mattala International Airport by the US’s P8-A Poseidon, a long-range maritime patrol aircraft, for an exercise that according to the US embassy “worked with Sri Lanka Air Force and Navy in safe-guarding the international shipping lanes,” would confirm this view.
The manner in which the Navy was deployed in Hambantota Port (obviously with government backing) and the Navy Commander’s repugnant behaviour can be better understood if the broader context, incorporating all these elements, is also taken into account.