It has not been that long since we read about the callous disregard for human life in a number shootings, which occurred in August 2011, where the police and military used live ammunition to ‘control’ protests that occurred outside police stations and military camps. That particular period passed us by with one protester being shot dead in Pottuvil by the military, two protesters being injured when the military shot at a demonstration in Kinniya and a few protesters being injured when they were shot at by the police in Puttalam. If these incidents seem somewhat remote and indistinct, there is always the equally tragic incident in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in July 2011, when a protester was killed as a result of live ammunition used by the police along with the grievous assault of other protesters. The incident itself resulted in an inordinate amount of coverage by the press due to the swingeing but short-lived demands for counteraction against the enormities of policing in the country. However, if there were any expectations of a turn around over the policy of using live ammunition against civilians, the brutal killing of a protester in Chilaw by the Special Task Force two days ago demonstrates that once bitten, this Government is never twice shy.
While there was absolutely no demand for introspection and inquiry following the shootings in Puttalam, Kinniya and Pottuvil, the FTZ killing in Katunayaka resulted in a presidential inquiry with the submission of an investigative report by Mahanama Tillakaratne to President Rajapaksa on the 6th of August 2011. Quite predictably, that particular report did not lead to any sort of critical action by the President. And why not? As one of the most corrupt institutions in the country and one that is responsible – even in a post-war context – for the violation of fundamental rights, custodial killings, encounter killings and outright murder, there is very little else that could result in the lowering of public confidence in a critical organ of the state responsible for civilian security and public order. In this context, it is inconceivable and utterly reprehensible that President Rajapaksa and the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, were unable to consider wider punitive measures and not mere transfers for what was a clear act of police brutality, as well as the urgent reformulation of policies on policing, which at present appear to favour manslaughter and the disproportionate use of force over the proper and legal containment of unrest and responsible management of public protest.
There is, of course, another aspect to the inaction of the government. The unwillingness to follow through with reform could be due to the fact that it is politically expedient to maintain a force for repression in order to militate against an attempt at subversion by citizen enemies. The government is, after all, quite fond of the “you’re either with us or against us” line of thinking, which has – over the last few years – translated into action on the streets and the old practice of vituperative verbal attacks against civil society activists. So, is public security really a concern for this government? If public security is a concern, why are protesters killed on the streets by the military and police? Or is it about repression in order to impede the upstart of larger dissenting movements? If public order is a goal, is it not inevitable that the insidious killing of protesters by the police and military will increase the likelihood of violent confrontations in the future? If there are no gross human rights violations and if there is justice in a post-war context, how are we supposed to interpret the killing of protesters, the brutality of police and military action, and the lack of investigations, convictions and reform? There is a point at which frequent incidental deaths at demonstrations become disconcerting, particularly when it occurs as a result of sadistic and disproportionate policing methods, and when the expectation of justice is an exercise in futility. Is justice a concern for this government? If it is, many are still waiting for its swift hand. However, it would be unfair to portray the incidents highlighted above as clear cases of state brutality since the protesters themselves could have instigated the violence, but this still does not legitimise the use of live ammunition. Surely, if there were enough reasons – in terms of a vital threat to public order – the use of rubber bullets, water canons, tear gas and effective policing would suffice. The only justification for the use of live ammunition would be if the protesters possessed weapons and demonstrated intent to kill.
In usual form, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has launched an investigation into the incident in Chilaw, and while the façade of accountability progresses, the family of the protester who was killed was offered money in return for their silence on the matter – an offer that they rejected. Why is the CID conducting an investigation if other officials – allegedly attached to the police – are trying to pay-off family members in order to impede the investigation? Why is there no investigation into this particular development? Perhaps the disbursement of funds is considered usual procedure when dealing with grievances of this nature, and a substitute for an actual investigation, but is this really the puerile conduct that the police force is willing to embrace in order to save face? It is also quite disappointing that many officials have failed to question the use of live ammunition, and in the case of Chilaw and others like it, the Inspector General of Police, N.K Ilangakoon, seems to be unwilling to put forward a directive disallowing the use of live ammunition on protesters, which – as a result – implies that the IGP actively supports the disproportionate use of force and the violation of fundamental rights.
Too often the defence establishment has faltered and only few have taken Gotabhaya Rajapksa to task for his failures, negligence and fervent statements on policy, which have considerable implications for the way in which the government responds to critical issues in this country given the extent of centralisation. It is precisely because of the precedent set with the failure to ensure proper conduct in the response of the security forces and police to civilian protests – in Navanthurai, Pottuvil, Kinniya, Puttalam, Katunayake and elsewhere – and to institute proper reforms following violations that we have to contend with brutal incidents such as the one in Chilaw. The government seems to have no qualms about the continued use of the military in enforcing public order despite the fact that its interventions have been an unmitigated disaster, and it – wittingly or unwittingly – simply disregards the demands for necessary action that should extend beyond a flippant investigation and, god forbid, the appointment of another commission of inquiry.
And to whom should we rightfully assign overall responsibility and blame for these successive failures in security policy? Gotabhaya Rajapaksa must resign, and so too must the Inspector General of Police. Will you see to it, Mr. President?