by Samanmalee Unanthenna
I apologise. Clearly I was wrong in my predictions regarding the new Rajapaksa cabinet in my earlier article. What I did not realise was that quite apart from an acute sense of survival and strong sense of family loyalty, our President has a dark sense of humour. How else would you explain appointing a former tuition master, Bandula Gunawardena, as the Minister of Education, Mervyn Silva as Deputy Minister of Media, and Wimal Weerawansa as Minister of Housing, Construction, Engineering and Public Utilities? Was it Weerawansa’s much publicised new house that qualified him for that particular portfolio? And the respect and concern that the President has for the media that he demonstrated with his appointment of Mervyn Silva?
Refreshing as an analysis of Presidential humour is, my objective in this article is to attempt an analysis of the President’s intentions for ‘development’ which we have been told repeatedly, is what we can expect in a ‘peaceful’ Sri Lanka under the Rajapakse regime. We have been told that development will deliver us from all the problems we have experienced and will be the means through which the wounds that have been inflicted over the past several years will be healed. Even before the elections, it was clear that that the Rajapakse regime believed in ‘big’ development. The new harbour, airport, highways, coal power projects, oil explorations and accelerated tourism programmes are all testaments to this. It is also clear that the President was not taking any chances with these sectors in his new cabinet: these have been mainly covered between himself and his brother Basil Rajapakse, and the appointment of three Deputy Ministers for Economic Development under Basil Rajapakse signifies the importance of this Ministry. The recent incorporation of the Urban Development Authority under the Ministry of Defence sends another clear signal about the intentions and priorities of the Rajapakse regime. Quite apart from the obvious potential for enrichment of the Rajapakse clan for generations to come and presumably of securing Namal’s future election campaign funds, what could a future of ‘big development’ under a totalitarian and corrupt regime mean?
‘Development’ is a highly contentious and controversial project. What it means, how effective it has been, who wins and who loses through development has been endlessly debated and discussed. While many questions remain unanswered, there is some consensus with regard to the drawbacks of ‘big development’ projects: most large scale development projects have been long term failures and apart from filling the pockets of the political elite, their supporters and development agencies, they have largely failed to deliver on their ambitious goals and objectives. More seriously, the environmental and social impacts of big development projects have been disastrous. The writings of those like Arundathi Roy, Vandana Shiva and others have highlighted some of the consequences of these projects for the environment, for food security and most of all for poor and marginalised communities.
One of the most tragic outcomes of these development projects has been the disruption and displacement experienced by local communities whose lifestyles and livelihoods are swept away to make way for highways, large scale energy and power projects, hotels, and big businesses. Anyone who is perceived to be in the way of development projects will be removed. The lifestlyles and livelihoods of local communities which are patronised as ‘traditional’ have no space within the ‘modernity’ that is promised by big development. The traditional within ‘big development’ become artifacts in museums.
The ‘modernity’ that is encapsulated in ‘big development’ places its faith in technology of a particular kind (the kind that is dependent on expensive and limited resources) and the market to deliver on its promises. And this faith has remained relatively unshaken despite all recent evidence that points to the dangers of such faith and dependency most notably environmental degradation, loss of food security, spiralling inequalities and unstable markets. This is largely due to the fact that those who suffer from these consequences are those who do not matter; those who in the words of the Italian philosopher Agamben, are reduced to ‘bare life’.
The fact that ‘big development’ is often the hallmark of authoritarian regimes is not a coincidence. Big development projects usually impose themselves on communities with an arrogant belief in their success and disregard for those whose are negatively impacted. Authoritarian regimes are particularly well placed to ignore and suppress local voices that are often raised to protect homes, communities, livelihoods and environments at risk in the face of big development. Authoritarian regimes are also able to crush revolts, bulldoze through homes and mobilise armies to defend the interests of the powerful and to suppress any negative publicity such projects might generate (Mervyn Silva’s appointment as Deputy Minister of Media and Information may not be just a joke after all). This is why organisations such as IMF, the World Bank, the ADB and even USAID have often turned a blind eye to authoritarian regimes; these are usually the donors behind most ‘big development’ projects. It is no coincidence that the Rajapakse regime reputedly has a very cordial relationship with the World Bank and with the Chinese government. Neither have a reputation for giving a voice to the marginalised.
And who in the decimated Opposition can give a voice to the marginalised at the moment? Certainly not the UNP; not only has it proved itself utterly incapable of raising a voice for anybody, its philosophy and vision would be in complete agreement with the development vision of the Rajapakse regime. Any UNP opposition would be motivated by a severe case of sour grapes and not from an understanding of the negative consequences of big development. Philosophically, the JVP is best placed to provide any political opposition to such schemes; we can only wait and see if they will do so. If the JVP is serious about representing the voice of the marginalised and the oppressed, it needs to understand and respond to the ways in which big development works within totalitarian regimes. Perhaps the ITAK has a role to play in this too although its position on broader issues concerning their constituents such as development as yet remains unknown.
Perhaps, US Assistant Secretary Richard Blake’s otherwise incomprehensible remark noting the defeat of hardline Sinhalese nationalist parties in the recent election has to be read in this context and is a signal of what we can expect from the international community in the future. Was this the US breathing a sigh of relief at the parliamentary setback for the potentially disruptive JVP? How else do we make sense of Richard Blake’s comment given that the most blatant Sinhala racists are on board the government bandwagon and not within the Opposition parties? And the fact that this election if anything has given hardline Sinhala racists carte blanche? If support for devolution is the only criteria for judging a more accommodating position with regard to minority communities, Richard Blake’s statement only confirms the international community’s inadequate understanding of the complexities of the Sri Lankan situation.
All the signals from the Rajapakse regime are clear. This is going to be the era of ‘big development’. And this means big bucks for those close to the regime, hardship for those who are not and displacement, disruption and misery for the powerless. It also means that the country will be dragged in the direction of unsustainable and unequal growth with serious repercussions for future generations as we have learnt from countless examples around the world. This will be the challenge we have to face in the future and we better be prepared to fight it.
26th April 2010