By Niresh Eliatamby –
Let’s stop calling them ‘rioters’ and ‘mobs’, shall we? They are terrorists. They kill people, and loot and burn the shops and houses of ordinary people. They terrorize people. That’s terrorism. They are terrorists.
The Chief of Defense Staff actually went further and publicly labelled as ‘traitors’ those who rampaged through much of the Northwestern Province and parts of the Gampaha District. His reasoning is that these acts of violence are anti-national acts and amount to treason. He is correct.
Do we have the right men at the top?
Pity the new Secretary of Defense, a decorated war veteran of the 1990s, who it is understood had the job thrust upon him because many other retired officers declined requests to take on the hot seat. But his performance has been woeful at best, given the mayhem that unfolded in several districts this week. Was no one listening to him, or did he simply not take suitable action?
On Monday of course, we all learned that our Minister of Defense, who also happens to be our President, had waltzed off overseas. This time, he actually appointed the State Minister for Defense to act for him as Minister. However, the fact that the mayhem continued for more than four days (as I write this, Sri Lanka’s second largest city – Gampaha – is under a curfew for yet another night) speaks volumes for the fact that the Acting Minister was unable to bring the situation to a close. He of course is a civilian leader. But did he not receive the proper advice from the experienced military men and police officers in top posts? After all, our senior-most military and police men each spent at least a quarter of a century fighting and ultimately vanquishing the LTTE, which was a far more dangerous terrorist organisation.
More than 48 hours after the rioting began, the Commander of the Army and the Acting IGP came on TV and announced that soldiers and police would take the most severe action. Why they waited so long is perplexing. Are the senior officers in the field not obeying their orders? So far, only one Superintendent of Police has been transferred.
Traitors commanded by politicians
So who are these terrorists? They are in fact the goons and henchmen of the political thugs whom Sri Lanka’s voters have placed in positions of power. That much is certain. Political leaders of both the ruling and opposition parties have in the last two days pontificated that these are ‘outside political forces’, and firmly asserted that this was not a spontaneous backlash by Sinhala people of the region. Most Sri Lankans, I would think, would agree with these assertions. Of course, local rascals would often join in once a rampage starts.
But of course, these same political leaders did little to reign in the goons. In fact, the question that needs to be asked is which political leader or leaders planned and ordered this mayhem. It’s a question that is unlikely to ever be officially answered, just as the same question remains unanswered for Black July since 1983, although most of us can hazard a well educated guess about that one.
Who let this mayhem continue?
However, this does not mean that the matter should not be investigated. For that, we need another Commission of Investigation – Presidential, Parliamentary, whatever. Don’t laugh. To not investigate the matter would be worse.
Apart from attempting to unravel the tangled web of who was behind the violence, such a commission must also investigate why the police and armed forces allowed the mayhem to escalate and continue for so long, instead of nipping it in the bud as soon as it began.
It is ludicrous to think that the police could not have quelled the situation. The fact is that political goons are not fighting for a cause. They do it for the money that they receive from politicians. Having covered numerous riots and demonstrations over many years as a journalist, it is my opinion that a simple baton charge by a determined group of policemen is quite sufficient to end such mayhem. Anyone who has ever been at the receiving end of a swinging police baton knows that once you get hit by it, you don’t want to get hit again for a very long time. Our police are also not known for their gentleness in such situations.
If there were too many rioters (terrorists), then a couple of shots from a T56 or pistol at the leader of the mob would have caused them to turn tail and flee. Nowhere did we see any of the rioters (terrorists) carrying firearms. However, every policeman is allowed to carry a pistol or a T56 automatic rifle. Our police and soldiers think nothing about shooting at a vehicle that doesn’t stop at a checkpoint, so they shouldn’t have any qualms about shooting a couple of rioters (terrorists). Why weren’t they given orders for this on the first day of the violence?
The Internet is awash with allegations and CCTV footage of political types getting involved in the mess, and ordinary soldiers and policemen standing by and watching some of the attacks take place. Unlike in 1983, there are smartphones and CCTV cameras recording the shameful scenes, and broadcasting them around the world through the Internet. So much for the president’s plea for foreign tourists to visit our charming paradise isle.
However, the glaring fact is that not a single terrorist was shot. In fact, there have not been any reports of any of them even needing medical treatment from a baton injury.
Where were our elite troops?
Where in the world were the rapid deployment teams of the army and Special Task Force? If the situation could not be quelled by ordinary police and soldiers, why not bring in the best as fast as possible? Helicopters could have carried elite troops to Chilaw within minutes. Remember that choppers don’t need airfields – they are able to land on or hover over any suitably large patch of ground such as a football ground or paddy field. They can also easily carry the high powered motorbikes used by elite troops. There are also other methods such as spraying tear gas from helicopters that are routinely used by other countries.
According to Google Maps, it takes two hours by car to reach Chilaw from Ganemulla, where the army’s Commando Regiment is based. In fact, Google Maps shows that you could walk from Ganemulla to Chilaw in fourteen hours. I kid you not! A push bike could get you there in less than five hours. So why in the world was a second day of rioting allowed at all? Shouldn’t the entire Northwestern Province have been chockful of tens of thousands of soldiers by Monday morning?
Any argument that we don’t have sufficient numbers of troops is laughable. A simple Google search will show that Sri Lanka remains one of the most heavily militarized countries in the world. Sri Lanka is the 22nd country in the world in terms of per capita military personnel, and also has the 20th largest army in the world! And that’s not even counting the police.
Questions, questions and more questions. But very few answers.
*Niresh Eliatamby spent nearly two decades covering Sri Lanka’s civil war