SRI LANKA: People must unite to bring about peace

July 11, 2001

BY CHRIS SLEE
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The civil war raging in Sri Lanka cannot be ended through negotiations between the government and Tamils fighting for self-determination, a visiting Sri Lankan farmer activist has said.

It is "the unarmed people of all ethnic groups [who] have capacity to stop the war", argues Sarath Fernando. Rather than relying on negotiations, people who want peace need to become "an independent force of civil society" and force a peaceful resolution.

Fernando works for MONLAR, the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform, an organisation campaigning for the rights of small farmers, and was in Australia for discussions with members of the Sri Lankan community.

Fernando rejected President Chandrika Kumaratunga's talk of a "war for peace", saying, "We are totally opposed to the war. We want it to stop immediately".

He said the war cannot be ended without addressing the grievances of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. "All groups should have equal opportunities. This has not happened. There must be either full equality, or a separate state".

Referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in the country's north, Fernando said: "We don't agree fully with the LTTE. But we understand the grievances of the Tamil people. We would accept their demand for a separate state, even though we don't think it is the best solution."

"We support devolution. But if the Tamils are not satisfied with this, we would support separation."

Many organisations have been working together for peace, Fernando said. They are demanding that the government should declare its willingness to end the war, and redeploy its forces in a defensive manner, rather than carrying out massive offensives as at present.

Fernando said that the government should provide the maximum opportunity for Tamils and Muslims to express their opinions in the media, a step necessary to help members of the Sinhala majority understand the Tamil and Muslim minorities.

"We need a sincere effort to explain to Sinhala people the aspirations of the Tamil and Muslim people. The Sinhala people would benefit by granting these aspirations, because the alternative is continuation of the war," he said.

"When the Sinhala people are won to support Tamil aspirations, the LTTE will not be able to continue the war, even if it wanted to — the Tamil people would not allow it".

Fernando said that the LTTE appears ready to accept a reasonable settlement. Earlier negotiations broke down because the government was not serious, he said: its offers were not satisfactory and were rejected by the LTTE. This gave the government the excuse to start the war again.

Fernando said, "To build a strong peace movement, issues of peace and ethnic conflict should be taken up together with the other problems people are facing. Ordinary people face tremendous problems due to present economic policies."

The situation in the countryside is worsening daily, Fernando explained. Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world — mainly in rural areas, among small farmers.

During the last cultivating season, the cost of production for rice farmers was 11 rupees per kilo of paddy. But farmers could not sell paddy above eight rupees per kilo, largely because of the weak bargaining position of the farmers, which enables traders to buy rice from farmers at very low prices during the harvest period.

Prior to 1977, the government supported small farmers by buying their rice. But the Paddy Marketing Board was closed on the orders of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, who also insisted that government services to small farmers (such as agricultural extension and seed production) be withdrawn.

Now the World Bank says that irrigation water must be sold to farmers by the private sector, not distributed free.

A 1996 World Bank report entitled "Non-plantation sector policy alternatives" advocated converting agriculture from rice to high-value crops. Small farmers can't do this, it argued, and should therefore be pressured to leave the land. One measure to bring this about, it said, would be to charge farmers for water rather than supplying it free.

The government has accepted this proposal and adopted a new national water policy. It intends to put all water resources in the hands of the government, then issue water entitlements at a price. Foreign companies will be invited to market water, a practice said to be "more efficient".

Land is also being privatised. Formerly much of the land was government-owned, but distributed to small farmers.

There are large irrigated areas where the state formerly organised the irrigation and services. Small farmers benefited from this, but now big agribusiness companies are being brought in, encouraged by tax holidays of up to 20 years.

Farmers continue to resist these policies, Fernando explained, even though they have been weakened by the cuts to services.

Trade unions are also fighting privatisation. Most industies have been sold off. Electricity and telecommunications are largely privatised. Bank employees, postal workers, and electricity board workers are amongst those fighting privatisation.

At each stage, people have fought against privatisation policies, Fernando said, but have faced massive repression.

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