By Laksiri Fernando –
Even after three weeks of the killings, no charges have so far been filed against the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. No one was arrested or taken into custody, by the army or the police. There is a possible cover up in the offing. The opposition leader and the opposition at large should not forget about their call for an ‘independent inquiry’ into these events. When this issue was raised in Parliament on 6 August, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Leader of the House, promised an independent inquiry but it has not been appointed. Perhaps the Minister meant what he said, but other vested interests preventing of an independent inquiry so far.
The way the government and the country treats this incident might signify the direction in which Sri Lanka would be heading in the near future. Are we moving in the direction of a full scale military rule or are we reverting back to democracy are the two questions at stake. The whole episode shows the symptoms of a full scale quasi-military rule in the making in the country.
The persons who were killed were all young: Akila Dinesh, aged 19 and living in Helenwatta, Weliweriya; Ravishan Perera, aged 18, living in Bandarawatte, Weliweriya; and Nilantha Pushpakumara, aged 29 originally from Gampola.
The government propaganda machine has been claiming that the clashes took place due to ‘outside elements’ attacking the army personnel. But among the three killed, no one could possibly be identified belonging to this so-called outside instigators. The government spokespersons claimed that Nilantha Pushpakumara, only outsider, was killed by pole attacks and not by army shooting. While this may be correct, the video footages show the army personnel carrying poles other than automatic rifles. At least one journalist, Ms. Deepa Adhikari, was assaulted by a soldier with a pole, according to her report. There seems to be no reason for the protesters to attack Pushpakumara, even if there had been a clash. This is plain common sense.
Apart from the three persons killed, two of them being students, nearly 50 persons were severely assaulted and there is very clear evidence that even the nearby Church was attacked. The result of the whole army assault clearly was to intimidate and terrorise the people who were protesting over the contaminated water allegedly due to a glove factory in the area disposing chemical refuse into the soil. ‘We asked for water, they gave us bullets’ was the general feeling among the people.
There is no question that the protestors were not completely peaceful. They were tense, agitated and even aggressive. As a retired Major General, Lalin Fernando, however said in his Asian Tribune column “blocking public roads is the common strategy to force apathetic and spineless authorities to act over festering grievances.” How many protests Mahinda Rajapaksa himself had organized of similar or even violent nature in the past? It is pertinent to ask the question. If the protests are violent that is something that anyone should not encourage. There should be peaceful means to resolve these issues without resorting to violence and particularly using the military.
After the protesters were threateningly chased away and attacked, some even have admitted throwing stones at the soldiers perhaps believing that ‘our heroes’ would not shoot us. A mother wept and said “we were attacked again and again chasing behind” (apita elowa elowa gahuwa). The soldiers were definitely acting on orders. If they were acting on their own then that is more serious and dangerous. As one person retorted, “I gave my blood to the army during the war” and showing his arm said “I am now feeling like cutting it out.” There were so much of disillusionment and heart feelings among the protestors.
After watching almost all the video footages quite carefully, I have not seen any indication of the protestors throwing petrol bombs at the initial stages. If the video given by a spectator to the Hiru TV is of any indication, my contention is that a ‘fireball,’ whether petrol bomb or not, came from the army side and not from the protestors’ side. I may be mistaken. Even this happened after nightfall. The footage may probably belong to a branch road at Balummahara area and not the Colombo-Kandy road at Weliweriya junction. On the same footage, I have seen the army shooting at the street lamps and there were ‘bonfire’ here and there on the streets. Then the place was completely blacked out.
Of course the army shooting or attacks were not confined to one place. There were several places occupied by the protestors. If the first attack and the shooting took place at Weliweriya junction, along the Colombo Kandy road, then there was no reason at all to use lethal force to disperse the crowd. At close camera, the crowed may appear enormous, but when seen from above, the crowed was not more than 500 people or even less. I am referring to the footage shown by the News1st, the following day, reported by Amarasiri Bandara.
There is clear evidence of a three star army officer with a heavy moustache confronting the crowds and threatening to use force. Still a government Minister, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, heroically asked the question ‘who gave the order?’ at the Hartal commemoration meeting this year, relating the story that in 1953, Dudley Senanayake gave the order to shoot while crying.
This is a futile question coming from the government side. Nanayakkara should know that the times have changed and changed dramatically. This is an executive presidential system, after a military victory and under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Nanayakkara and others must have rejoiced and even hoodwinked the masses by saying that our friend Mahinda Rajapaksa lifted the emergency regulations in August 2011. But they should know better than us that the same President signed an Extraordinary Gazette notification on 6 September 2011, in terms of Section 12 [Part 3] of the Public Security Ordinance to utilize “all of the armed forces for the purpose of maintaining public order at any time and in all parts of the country.”
Therefore, no one need to sign a specific shooting order in particular, the President or his brother, the Defence Secretary, and a blanket shooting order is there in the order book, black and white. This is the danger that Nanayakkara should focus on and try to get rid of. Otherwise, Sri Lanka will slowly and steadily deteriorate into a military rule under the presidential system. This is nothing particularly against the military. The blame should squarely go to the politicians. But I don’t believe that the Defence Secretary was unaware of the army being sent to the scene. He could have prevented it if he wanted to. Only difference is that if the protesters were unruly then tear gas, water cannons or baton charge should have been used instead of shooting on the spot. Crowed control is a task for the police. When the army is sent for the purpose, the shooting is natural and inevitable.
When Anton Muttukumaru, a former Chief of Staff and Commander of the Army, wrote his “The Military History of Ceylon” (1993), he said “The soldier, particularly at the sharp end in operations, thinks in terms of black and white. He does not see the ‘grey’ areas which the perceptive officer does, and indeed must see.” And he further emphasised the following: “It follows that a heavy responsibility rests on the officer, particularly at junior level, to make the soldier realise that all is not fair in a ‘war’ of the kind he is involved in.”
My focus or blame is not on the three-star Officer alone, I understand a Brigadier, that I have mentioned or any other in particular. It is up to an independent inquiry to uncover the exact perpetrators or the chain of command leading to the killings. However, the use of armed forces in maintaining public order should stop forthwith. This is not the first time that it has happened in recent times. It had happened in Jaffna repeatedly even after the lapse of the emergency regulations in August 2011 which escaped the media or public attention, as they should have been, perhaps because they happened on the ‘other side.’
The army spokesman, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, declared on 4 August (Ada Derana) that there will be an army inquiry into the incident and a report will be submitted within two weeks. The timeframe has already elapsed. A parallel police inquiry supposedly commenced at the same time although no one has so far been arrested. Have you ever heard about a refusal to arrest likely perpetrators to a killing before an inquiry commences? This is the pathetic situation of the ‘right to life’ in Sri Lanka, now under Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It is reliably suspected that the police inquiry is hampered by the army inquiry. It is the police that have apparently requested the army to intervene. No higher approval apparently has been sought. It is believed and claimed that the authority is covered by the Presidential order dated 6 September 2011 that I previously mentioned. This may or may not be the case. These are matters that an independent and a transparent inquiry should go into. Even if it is the case, the Presidential Order is like ‘playing with people’s lives’ without restraint, discretion or responsibility. It is unwarranted in a democratic country, if Sri Lanka still claims that accolade. Both the behaviour of the army and the police has violated all the basic tenets of human rights conventions that Sri Lanka is party to as shown very clearly by an ‘Appeal for Justice for Weliweriya’ signed by a prominent group of people.
There are serious doubts cast over the army inquiry due to several reasons. The person in charge, appointed for the inquiry, himself is accused of serious war crimes during the last stages of the war against tiger terrorism. The effort of the army spokesperson during the incidents, and even after the appointment of an army inquiry, has been to defend the army action without being neutral. He has given various interpretations to the incident prejudicial to the inquiry. It is also a valid question to ask, why the government is still allowing an army spokesperson to operate at all as there is no war going on in the country!
Under normal circumstances of operation, one might not object for calling civilians or journalists to cooperate before an army inquiry to give evidence voluntarily. But the inquiry should be held at a neutral place and the people should be informed properly about the purpose of the inquiry and the rights they have, including the right to legal representation. People’s cooperation before the inquiry should completely be voluntary. The one sentence letter or the summons issued by the Chairman of the Preliminary Army Court of Inquiry in this respect, asking people to come to the Army Commando Regiment – Ganemulla Camp, has not only been inadequate but also appear to be threatening. Affixing the officer’s various titles is not a substitute for explaining the purpose. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has rightfully condemned this effort and exposed the various dangers accompanying with that effort.
Seven media related organizations also have condemned the effort and have asked the authorities as to ‘under what law that the summons has been issued.’ The newly appointed Army Commander Lt Gen Daya Ratnayake has said “I will not tolerate any behaviour that goes beyond the Army’s legitimate duties.” This is well and good. However, the army has already gone beyond its legitimate duties for the whole world to see and the army spokesperson has already given the army’s interpretation of the incidents and has thus squarely compromised the credibility of the army inquiry. Under the circumstances, the only reliable course of action in finding the truth and punishing the perpetrators would be to appoint an independent, impartial and a transparent inquiry. The army should submit to that inquiry, if it is a professional entity divorced from dubious politics of the current regime.
*The author is former Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo and a specialist on human rights