By M. A. Sumanthiran –
‘I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent’.
Grief is the inevitable consequence of violence. The tragic and inexcusable events of Weliweriya have left its residents with unimaginable grief.
Akila Dinesh Jayawardena was a 17 year-old student of Chandrajothi Vidhyalaya, Yakkala. He was killed by a soldier’s bullet as he inched through protestors searching for his mother. As his body lay at the mortuary of the Gampaha hospital on the evening of August 1, two others, Ravishan Perera and Nilantha Pushpakumara, fought for their lives. But they too did not survive. Ravishan was 19 years old at the time of his death. Nilantha was 29. Close to 50 others were treated for injuries. Some were critical.
In December 2011, during the Parliamentary debate on the Defence Ministry budget, I warned the nation that the ills of militarisation in the North would eventually spill over into the South. Now that the post-war fog has been lifted, the people—perhaps for the first time—see the monster they are left with. Even those persons who, as ambassadors and in similar capacities defended the government’s brutal prosecution of the war in the North with scant disregard to civilian safety, are now getting on the band wagon questioning the role of the military in this instance. These are the people who even parrotted the government’s blatant falsehood that there were only 70,000 people in the war zone, when in fact the government figures themselves would have shown that there were people in excess of 400,000!
The villagers of Weliweriya had a serious grievance. They protested against the government’s failure to address contamination of their ground water reserves caused by toxic waste from a nearby glove factory. The government and courts refused to close the factory. Left powerless, thousands of people from ten affected villages took to the streets. What happened next shocked and bewildered the South. The North watched with weary empathy.
The Army arrived, dressed in flack jackets and helmets, with T-56 assault rifles by their side. Armored Personnel Carriers were deployed. Soldiers used clubs and riffle butts in an indiscriminate assault on the people of Weliweriya. Even women and children were not spared. To think the Army could have done this to their people was unthinkable to the residents of Weliweriya. A villager from Weliweriya told the media that they held regular Bodhi Poojas to bless the soldiers during the war. Now, those very soldiers have turned on their supporters. From learned men to simple villagers, events in Weliweriya have caused the sanitised narrative of this regime in respect of the military’s conduct during the war to be called into question. I began with the Mahatma‘s words because I anticipate that those who unquestioningly supported the militarisation project will now detect the permanent cost of such support.
Weliweriya was only the latest of a string of horrifying incidents involving the Armed Forces and the Police. In May 2011, Roshen Shanaka was shot dead by the Police at the young age of 21. His crime was to have dared to protest against the government’s mandatory pension scheme for private sector employees. In August 2011, the people in Navanthurai, Jaffna protested over a serious grievance, which directly involved the military. At the time, the fear of ‘grease devils’ bedeviled the country. Five such ‘grease devils’ were seen fleeing into an Army camp, only to exit the camp in military garb and in an Army jeep. The next day, 100 Tamil men were dragged from their homes by armed soldiers, brutally assaulted and ‘arrested’. In February 2012, Warnasuriya Anthony Fernando, a 35-year-old fisherman and father of two, was shot dead by the Special Task Force while protesting against a fuel price hike. In July 2012, several Tamil political prisoners were severely beaten by the Special Task Force following a hostage taking incident. Amongst them, Ganesan Nimalaruban died of his injuries. Another prisoner, Mariyadas Delrukshan, was left in a coma and eventually succumbed to his injuries. In November 2012, a peaceful protest organised by the students of the Jaffna University was brutally suppressed by the Army. Many of the protestors were later hospitalised due to injuries sustained in the attack. Also in November, the Army was deployed to quell a riot at the Welikada prison, where they shot and killed 27 prisoners. Some of the prisoners were killed ‘execution style’ after the riot was quelled. These incidents mark the truly indiscriminate effects of militarisation and impunity in this country. How many more of these incidents would it take before the peoples of this country unite in their commitment to end tyranny?
Lincoln once said, ‘you can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.’ The people are not fools. They realise that militarisation and impunity must come to an end. Voices in the South are already speaking of the ills of militarisation. They are also speaking of credible and independent investigations into the Weliweriya incident. Some even have the audacity to call for international investigations.
Throughout the post-war period, my party and I have called for the disengagement of the military and a return to civilian administration. I have repeatedly criticised the monthly Presidential Proclamation that calls out the Armed Forces to maintain law and order. Immediately following the end of the war, we called for accountability for international crimes committed by the Armed Forces and the LTTE. We called for an international investigation because the government was unwilling to impartially investigate these crimes. Our call is on account of the immense suffering and injustice endured by the victims we represent. It is also on account of the fact that the lack of accountability breeds impunity. The cost of impunity—though disproportionately borne by the Tamil people—is a cost all peoples of this country will have to bear. Last week, the families of Weliweriya paid a cost they should never have had to pay.
Weliweriya bears testament to the fact that militarisation condemns all of society to endure grief. It is also a harsh reminder that an unaccountable government will be unaccountable to everyone, including to its own supporters. Just as we are united in our grief, we must be united in our struggle against tyranny. A military confined to the barracks is a decisive victory for all Sri Lankans, as it will signal a return to normality and civilian life. A robust policy of prosecution, truth telling and reparation for the crimes committed in the past will be a decisive victory for all Sri Lankans, as it will ensure that acts of impunity will not be tolerated, regardless of the victims’ identities. This is the measure of genuine unity. For if we are all connected, we will be united in grief, and when justice comes, united in victory.
*The author, M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate