By Kusal Perera –
“These are sons for whom we prayed and offered blessings as war heroes, who are now attacking us, when we ask for water” – Mother of an injured youth speaking to media, after military crushed the Weliweriya mass protest on 01 August, 2013
The savagery let loose in Weliweriya on 01 August afternoon provides every reason to say, important political decisions are made, not by the elected government, but by those who think they have an unquestionable right to decide on what and how they perceive as right and wrong for Sri Lankans. And now, Sri Lankans for them have no difference and include the Sinhala Buddhist constituency as well.
The “Weliweriya protest” as it is now called, was no spontaneous outburst on a flimsy, trivial issue or incident. It is not about few villages asking for clean water. It is about total impotence of an elected government to address a serious concern of its own citizenry. Villagers in about 12 villages along Attanagalu Oya and around Weliveriya, Rathupaswela, Nedungamuwa area, had been complaining about their water wells and bathing ponds gradually getting polluted. They claimed their complaints were sent to district authorities and the Water Board. While nothing worthwhile was being done on these complaints over many months, pollution had increased to a degree, the villagers could not use them for any purpose. Elderly villagers told media they could not even get into their paddy fields as the water leaves an itching on their feet. More complaints had only brought them water barrels, provided by the Water Board.
Villagers had reason to believe the cause for such gradual pollution of their water sources over many years, was the coming of a factory that produced industrial gloves for export. They also believe, the reason for not taking any action to solve the issue was because the company that owned the factory had very strong influence in making the government decide their way. The owners of this company are Hayley’s Group. The major or the biggest shareholder of Hayley’s is Dhammika Perera, presently the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, who singularly holds more than 48 per cent of the total shares, directly and indirectly. The company, Dipp Products Group claims they share 05 per cent of the world’s general and industrial gloves market. The company claims they maintain all required standards at their factory in question and is not responsible for such pollution. Yet pollution of natural water sources in an area of about 05 sq km, where the factory is, has run bad over the years.
If the company claims they don’t pollute, but the water however is being polluted unending, then there should have been some serious investigations by relevant authorities. They are the Central Environment Authority, the BOI as the approving and regulating authority of export oriented ventures and the Department of Industries, who should find out the actual reason(s) for such pollution and then recommend what should be done. Such investigation should have kept the villagers informed of all development. Meanwhile alternate arrangements could have been brought into place to provide water as a temporary measure. That would not have prompted or provoked the villagers to get on the streets.
For many months, nothing happened and the people were simply taken for granted. What do people do, when authorities continue to live deaf and blind ? They did what they could do thereafter as any effected community would do. Whole villages came on the streets on July 27 Saturday morning. How the whole issue was handled from then onwards, lacked any seriousness on the part of the district bureaucracy and the political leadership. Their callous disregard for people and their grievances, created no trust and confidence among the protesting villagers. The impotence on one side and the reluctance to take any action that could displease the company, worsened the situation. It only proved, this is no regime capable of working out credible answers for people wanting redress over their grievances and therefore decides muscle power is the only way in getting protesting people out of the roads.
The first discussions between the protesting villagers, the district leadership and legal representatives of the company, failed as their were no serious intention in settling the issue on a win win formula. On Tuesday, it was one of the most unwanted of all politicians, one who does not know what law of the land is, Minister Mervyn Silva who went to bully the people and have them dispersed. His antics and ultimatums did not get the people out of the roads. He thought the people would accept legal action against the factory and offered himself to lead legal action the next day. The people insisted the factory has to be closed, before they give up on their agitation. Loud as he is as always, Mervyn Silva promised to personally close the factory and immediately too. The company owners knew the law better than Mervyn Silva and compromised to pretend to have it closed but continued work. People too kept their vigil in front of the factory that was provided with over 400 police personnel including the riot squad.
Next day Wednesday, there were no complaints with the police filed and no case against the factory in courts. There were other ways to have the factory closed temporarily, if the government actually wished to have a breakthrough in negotiating with the protesting villagers now growing in numbers. The BOI and the Labour department could have intervened, legally in having the factory closed for any number of days. With no such move by any authority, it was obvious the protest would grow with more determination and defiance. By sheer impulse of an agitated society that is being taken around without answers, the protest gathered momentum and the numbers swelled on Thursday morning. From Weliweriya the protest extended to Belummahara junction, obviously wanting more publicity and more pressure brought on the reluctant government.
That was when the military in truckloads and with baffles was deployed in full battle gear. An ultimatum was given to the people to clear the road within five minutes. Police fired tear gas and some claimed, they fired rubber bullets too. The military then took over, not only the road but the whole Weliweriya and Rathupaswela area as well. They turned the area into a battle field with villagers beaten and shot. Journalists were selectively attacked too and warned they should not take photographs. A repeat of a massacre without “witnesses”, this time in Weliweriya. Some were injured in the attack, some had the memory sticks in the cameras damaged. Police had also taken youth under custody and locked up at Weliweriya police station.
Almost simultaneously, a collective of villagers were taken to Colombo Fort to discuss the water issue with the Secretary Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, at his ministry. Why should Secretary Defence intervene ? Why not the Ministers in charge of Environment, Industries, Health and Economic Development ? The answer would tell, such is how this Rajapaksa regime now runs the government. If one would remember the brutality with which protesting workers in Katunayake FTZ was treated in May 2012, this is a more upgraded, fierce version of that attack.
Both incidents that shocked the ordinary people with death and serious injuries to dozens, had the stock answer, “provocation by vested groups”. Quoted by the government Informations Department, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said the people were satisfied with the solution offered but “certain vested elements provoked the villagers into needless confrontations” and they were, “political motives (that) provoked some of the residents to stage protests.” If one may ask for clarifications a simple question would be, after many months of complaints on pollution of water sources, do people need external political motives or vested interests to provoke them to agitate and demand for water ? Isn’t it a right the people have to agitate and protest in society that is considered democratic ? One more issue. How can the Secretary of the Defense Ministry decide to close a factory, temporary or otherwise ? From where does that power comes ?
Post war Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa regime has nothing to offer to the people but elections, that too held with public funds. It proves it can not find credible answers to even local issues the people want answers for. Parents in Moratuwa closed up the Galle Road, wanting the transfer of Prince of Wales College deferred and the school was almost at a standstill with the new Principal unable to assume duties for over a fortnight. At Rawatawatte, the Galle Road once again was blocked with over 4,000 carpenters agitating and actor minister Jeevan Kumaratunge treated with flying water bottles, having gone to settle the protest. In Laggala, Matale district MP Lakshman Perera had to fast track his return, having gone to pacify the angry people who had stopped all traffic on the main road, after a tripper transporting sand from Mahaweli river knocked a mother and a son dead. The villagers claimed there were 14 run over before by trippers transporting sand. Anamaduwa school teacher’s issue and Deraniyagala Noori Estate murder were other major issues that brought villagers on to the street and still keeps the anger fuming.
None of these issues were satisfactorily settled. They are being dragged on. People have lost faith in the police, their investigations and the judiciary. Most recently the Bar Association of SL conceded that political suspects (and there are too many now) are given preferential treatment even when granting bail to them. Bail often is granted by Magistrates. That concludes the judicial system is corrupt and politicised to its lowest bench.
Such a bankrupt and corrupt regime can not be expected to play democracy with protesting people. But what should demand serious social attention is the fact that, it is no more the Tamil North and East the military keeps an alert on and in operation. But here in the South as well and over the Sinhala constituency too. The fact that it is the defence establishment that now holds discussions and decides issues and all relevant ministries have been pushed to the backbench, is serious enough an issue for any “patriot”.
Weliweriya will thus be a “path breaking” intervention in civil life, here in the South. All, if not most political and policy decisions are being made and implemented by the defence authority, no matter how the patriotic South accepts it. More will get added as the regime fails in its promised delivery. Now what if Tamil citizens in the Vanni eat “paalchoru” and light firecrackers after Weliweriya ? Well, its the same army under the same high command they would say. That essentially is the issue the South would have to now grapple with, to find answers for.