Bleeding for water – Text of Editorial in “The Island” of August 2, 2013.
Thursday’s brutal crackdown on a group of protesters in Weliweriya has left us in a state of shock and dismay. Armed to the teeth, the police and the army acted as if they were fighting a war of sorts. They first targeted the media personnel on the scene, betraying their true intention in the process; they were not there to prevent violence but to perpetrate it. One protester was killed 30 others were injured.
People who asked for clean water were left bleeding. Theirs was a legitimate grievance—the contamination of groundwater due to effluents from a rubber product factory. The government claims they took to the streets in spite of its efforts to solve the problem. But, the question is whether the people would have reacted in such a manner, risking life and limb, if they had been convinced that a solution was in sight.
There is no way the government could justify the Weliweriya crackdown. The same goes for brutal police/military attacks on peaceful demonstrations in the former war zone and other parts of the country. Lamentably, this kind of high octane performance is absent on the part of the government where extraordinary measures are necessary to ensure public safety.
People of Deraniyagala have been demanding for weeks that the Special Task Force (STF) be deployed in their area as gangs of pro-government thugs are threatening them in retaliation for their protests against the killing of a popular estate superintendent. Violent criminals are all out to frighten the intrepid members of the public who have come forward to give evidence against them, into silence. People’s pitiable pleas for protection have fallen on the stony deaf ears of the rulers who have no qualms about deploying heavily armed troops to crush public protests while criminals with links to the ruling party are enjoying unbridled freedom to carry out their illegal operations.
It is not being argued that the Weliweriya protesters were without blame. They overstepped their limits. They should have known better than to block an arterial road and give the government an excuse for a crackdown. When traffic is held up for hours on end with thousands of road users who are no party to the dispute undergoing untold suffering, then a protest becomes a public nuisance. The protesters also blundered on Thursday by pelting projectiles at the armed police and army personnel. Those who organise such demonstrations should exercise caution to prevent them from getting out of hand.
Offering its condolences to the family of the schoolboy killed in police/army fire, the government has sought to lay the blame for the incident solely at the doorstep of the organisers of the protest which, it claims, was instigated by an anti-government group. If it thinks people will buy into its arguments, it is mistaken. Those who drink mineral water that comes all the way from the fresh springs in the Alps certainly cannot empathise with the people left without potable water because their wells are contaminated for no fault of theirs.
The factory concerned produces rubber gloves for the export market, we are told. This country is thirsting for forex and exports must be promoted, but certainly not at the expense of the wellbeing of public. Had the government intervened much earlier to have a proper waste management system put in place, the groundwater pollution could have been avoided and there would not have been any need for the people to stage an aggressive protest. Or, at least, the government should have had the wisdom to detail some ministers and bureaucrats capable of winning public confidence to negotiate with the protesters instead of sending some cantankerous yahoos to tackle that sensitive issue.
The government cannot absolve itself of the blame for killing a schoolboy and cracking skulls and breaking limbs of others by trotting out lame excuses. It was a bloody day of shame!
Bleeding for water – II :Text of Editorial in “The Island” of August 5, 2013.
Italian social scientist, Pareto, expounded, circa the turn of the last century, the theory of the circulation of elite. Regimes, according to him, are overthrown not by the hoi polloi as such but by elite. The validity of Pareto’s theory has stood the test of time, after a fashion, but in this country the dislodgement of regimes also lends spurs to the circulation of hypocrites, if experience is anything to go by.
Today, the self-appointed liberators who have obtained popular mandates repeatedly to protect the public stand exposed as a bunch of hypocrites. They already have the blood of workers, fishers, scribes and schoolchildren on their hands. Ironically, their equally hypocritical rivals responsible for tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings in the past are now shedding crocodile tears for the hapless public.
Three persons including two schoolboys have died due to military and police excesses at Weliweriya, where a demonstration against groundwater contamination culminated in a confrontation between the protesters and armed troops and police personnel last Thursday. The condition of two or three more persons injured in the brutal attack is said to be serious. We hope and pray that they will recover fast.
The government, the police and the military are, true to form, trotting out lame excuses for unleashing a savage force disproportionate to the actual threat. They are trying to draw a red herring across their trail by blaming a third party for provoking a backlash. Why can’t they reveal the identities of the agents provocateurs, if any?
Sri Lanka is fast becoming a country like Big Brother’s Oceania, which we come across in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. There is a spy behind every bush and the police and military intelligence outfits are doing political work in the post war period. So, the government must be able to produce irrefutable evidence against the third party which, it claims, was involved in the Weliweriya protest. We can bet our bottom dollar that it has no credible proof to back its claim.
The Gampaha District, where last Thursday’s incident took place, is represented by many UPFA politicians at the parliamentary, provincial council and local government levels. There are 12 government parliamentarians—UNP 6 and JVP 1—including three Cabinet Ministers and five deputy ministers. The people of Gampaha have elected 27 UPFA members to the Western Provincial Council—UNP 10, JVP 1 and SLMC 1—and there are two ministers among them including the Chief Minister. The Gampaha Pradeshiya Sabha, under whose jurisdiction Weliweriya comes, has 13 UPFA members—UNP 5 and JVP 1.
All together, the government has 52 politicians to look after the interests of the people of Gampaha. But, they could not find a viable solution to the water problem in Weliweriya. They should have made an intervention at least after aggressive protests had broken out, to prevent a clash. Shame on them! They can’t, in all conscience, ask the people to vote for them again, can they?
A civic-conscious senior economist, in a letter we published on the opposite page yesterday, argued that safe waste disposal systems should take precedence over parks etc. One couldn’t agree with him more. The government is preoccupied with its urban yuppication programme which, no doubt, serves some useful purpose in that it makes the city and its suburbs less repulsive in view of the increasing number of tourist arrivals. But, such beautification projects must not be carried out to the neglect of the basic needs of the public. The nouveau riche going places in politics with imported mineral water to sip and sprawling private pools to take a dip in besides amethyst, marble and crystal bathtubs to have a good wallow in surely cannot empathise with the ordinary public undergoing severe hardships for want of water. People don’t die or rebel because they are without parks or jogging tracks but they are even prepared to risk their lives to gain access to aqua pura, as we saw last Thursday.
When problems crop up with the potential to trigger aggressive public protests, they must be immediately addressed and remedies found. A government worth its salt should be able to nip them in the bud without using sledge hammers to crack nuts.
The UPFA is never going to live down last Thursday’s barbaric crackdown. All signs are that having ridden the crest of a wave of popularity, the government is now riding for a fall, blinded by the arrogance of power.