Date: Mon, 20 May 1996 16:46:08 CDT
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Subject: Sri Lankan Village Takes on Voice of America
Via NY Transfer News Collective * All the News that Doesn't Fit
from Green Left Weekly #230 5/8/96

Sri Lanka village takes on Voice of America

By Kathryn Hamilton, in Green Left Weekly,
No. 230. 8 May, 1996

While the war goes on in north-east Sri Lanka, the people of Iranawila are fighting their own battle against what they see as information domination by the US broadcasting station Voice of America. The battle of the people of Iranawila is not just against development but against cultural invasion and manipulation.

Iranawila is a subsistence fishing community of about 400 families. They have had very little influence from the outside world. Despite years of colonial rule, barely any of the community speak English. They live in thatched huts surrounded by the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other.

The Voice of America is threatening this secluded community by attempting to set up an international broadcasting station with four antennae, each about 120 metres tall, transmitting to half the world.

In 1991 there were plans to develop a $40 million five-star hotel in this idyllic spot on Sri Lanka's north-west coast. Through grassroots protest, the people of Iranawila succeeded in preventing a US company with Australian investment from building the resort complex.

To continue their fight against the VOA they formed the Iranawila People's Solidarity Forum (IPSF).

The government has sold off 400 hectares to the Voice of America but faces grassroots action. In October 1994 construction was halted by protests. One villager was fatally shot in protests which turned violent when police were called. Now the government has allowed construction to resume, and the country is outraged.

The government has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the details of the agreement with the USA. It took 10 years before the 1983 agreement was tabled in Sri Lanka's parliament.

Agreements have been misrepresented in numerous ways to the people of Sri Lanka. A 1991 agreement was described by the minister for the environment: "Except for the cutting of some coconut trees required for the immediate building purposes, there will be no other disturbance of the top soil or of the cultivation in the area leased''. In fact, "some coconut trees'' amounted to at least 7000 by late 1993, and truck loads of sand and gravel were transported to the construction site.

Apparently the Central Environment Authority produced an environmental impact assessment of the site. This has not been published, nor have any residents of Iranawila seen it. The IPSF questions whether an environmental report was completed before the government agreed to the project.

While the area of land leased has been reduced from 400 hectares to 160 the locals remain opposed. Much of the area in and around Iranawila has been declared a security zone, preventing local fishermen access to the lagoon to make their living. "Economically these are some of the most marginalised people in the area'', says the bishop of Chilaw.

The people of the area have been further disrupted by the laying of 33-kilowatt high tension lines across their properties to supply power to the VOA station. These lines are to draw power from the national grid. This has deprived residents of their power supply.

VOA has broadcasting stations in 14 countries which relay programs from Washington to an estimated weekly audience of 127 million. It broadcasts news, music and special interest programs on the US way of life and "democracy''. The Washington Post quoted the deputy director and chief coordinator for overseas broadcasting as saying that the VOA is "a propaganda agency''.

It has been reported in Sri Lankan papers that the US embassy has issued threats to the Sri Lankan government that if the construction did not go ahead the US would cut aid and trade.

Bernard Edirisinge of the IPSF sums it up best: "Is it only music transmissions the VOA will be dishing out? Is it because we refuse to dance to such music that our garment quotas are to be cut, our flour restricted and our aid sliced?''

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