The full extent of the outrage committed in Weliweriya unfolds slowly but surely, in spite of crude attempts to gag the media. Grisly details continue to emerge from the countless testimonies of the bereaved, the assault victims, their relatives and the rest of the community. It’s unlikely that dozens of village people would be lying [...]


Weliweriya: Government shoots protesters in the head, and itself in the foot


The full extent of the outrage committed in Weliweriya unfolds slowly but surely, in spite of crude attempts to gag the media. Grisly details continue to emerge from the countless testimonies of the bereaved, the assault victims, their relatives and the rest of the community. It’s unlikely that dozens of village people would be lying in unison. The truthfulness of their accounts is as self evident as the Government’s dissembling to cover up the debacle.

The question asked by the media, Opposition MPs, religious leaders and other civil society representatives still remains unanswered: Who ordered army personnel in buffel trucks and body armour, armed with T56 assault rifles to storm a protest demonstration and shoot at unarmed civilians? Under what law was the order made, seeing that there is no emergency or invocation of the public security ordinance? In parliament on Tuesday while several Opposition MPs made impassioned speeches questioning the action, UNP’s Ajith Perera appealed to the army “not to obey illegal orders.”

Perhaps the most galling aspect of this incident, which killed three young people unconnected with the protest over contaminated ground water in Rathupaswala, was that it seemed to have been planned. The media were singled out at the very start, assaulted and driven away, cameras broken, apparently with the idea of compromising the recording of what was to follow. It seemed that soldiers knocked out the street lights so as to act under cover of darkness.

The injuries sustained by the dead and injured would seem to support the narrative that they were accidentally caught up in the disturbances when they were subjected to attack. The parish priest of St. Anthony’s Church Gampaha has described how forces stormed the church and assaulted persons who had taken refuge there. These were no terrorists. Nor were they the troublemakers armed with petrol bombs or firearms that the government and military alleged were among the protesters.

Akila Dinesh (17) who had gone out to fetch his mother, died after being shot in the chest. He was not fortunate enough to be wearing body armour like his attackers. Ravishan Perera (18) who was returning from tuition class died after he was shot in the head, when he had almost reached home. Nilantha Pushpakumara (29) on his way home from work, fled to the church to escape but died after his head was bashed with a blunt instrument. Ravishan and Nilantha hadn’t the protection of helmets like their attackers.

If dispersing an unruly crowd was the objective of this exercise, why wasn’t the principle of minimum force respected? The police could have used universally accepted methods such as firing tear gas, water cannon or riot guns. Instead, unarmed people were pursued and attacked with live ammunition by the military. Was this crowd control or murder?

In the aftermath of these events various explanations have been ventured by the government. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva who made a statement in parliament, and Minister Dulles Alahaperuma who commented at press briefing, said:

  • That the protesters were carrying on with their agitation even after an agreement had been reached to temporarily close the factory believed to be causing the ground water contamination and to take other steps to resolve the crisis
  • That the protests were instigated by a group of JVP-linked factory employees who had earlier been sacked
  • That amongst the protesters there had been ‘outside’ troublemakers who used petrol bombs and firearms against the army
  • That protesters were blocking the road and disrupting traffic
  • That they were unruly, damaged private and public property and set fire to a three wheeler

Do any of these conditions justify unleashing a military assault using live ammunition against hundreds of unarmed civilians? Surely not. Such circumstances do not alter the fact that grievous harm was inflicted by a disproportionate and unnecessary use of force. Angry protesters may hoot, throw stones and use improvised missiles against law enforcers. That’s normal. It’s what riot police are trained to deal with. The sequence of events in the town shows that there was no clash as such before the army went in. Reports suggest that it was after they started attacking people that the situation got out of control.

In Weliweriya, were the police simply overridden by the military? Police officers were seen saluting the coffins of two victims as their funeral processions went by, on two days. This gesture would suggest that the police had some empathy with the protesters. Western Province DIG Anura Senanyake addressing the people at one point acknowledged that they had a genuine grievance and that their protest ‘came from the heart.’

There are multiple ironies in this extraordinary episode that make the government’s behaviour difficult to fathom. Why would the Government want to anger and alienate a section of its Sinhala Buddhist support base in Gampaha, where 425,861 people voted for Basil Rajapaksa, the highest number of preferential votes in the district in the 2010 general election? What is the sense in creating ill feeling towards the army amongst the very people who, during the war, sacrificed sons and daughters in the fighting, donated blood, held bodhi poojas, mourned its defeats, celebrated its victories — in other words provided that rock solid support base to the forces, without which the war against the LTTE could not have been won?

Dayan Jayatilleke, political analyst and Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the UN in Geneva, describes Weliweriya as “a strategic blunder of the worst order”. Speaking on the fortnightly current affairs programme ‘Vantage Point’ on ‘MTV Sports’ on Thursday he said it could lead to the armed forces losing the support of its ‘rear base’ — the people of Sri Lanka.

The timing of this incident gives rise to further issues he said. Reports have by now been widely circulated in the international media, with a visit by UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay only weeks away, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) due to take place in November, with Sri Lanka taking over the chairmanship.

Dr. Jayatilleke who as ambassador was instrumental in staving off a hostile Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka in September 2009, said Pillay’s thinking is going to be, “if this is how Sinhalese people are treated in the South, imagine how they would have treated the Tamils in the last phase of the war!” While it was understandable that the army would want to conduct its own investigation, he said it was also important to set up another independent, credible inquiry into Gampaha. Unless we act fast the ‘case will be made’ for a UN led international inquiry on war crimes, he warned. Thus the army itself could become vulnerable as a result of this episode. And an apology was needed. “Unless they admit it was wrong, it will happen again.”

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