Seers predict that in the future, like in the past, wars will be fought over water. For water is life. In ancient times, the Buddha had to engage in conflict resolution time and again between the many clans in northern India over water issues. Once, he told the Litcchavi clan how to settle a dispute by meeting peacefully, discussing peacefully, and dispersing peacefully.
Last week’s tragic incident in the Gampaha district still reverberates throughout the country. A small, handwritten placard affixed to an electricity pole in the area asks a question: “Awama balaya thuwakku nam, uparima balaya kumakda?” (If minimum force is guns, what is maximum force?)
This is one of the core issues that emerged from the August 1 Army action on civilian protestrs in Belummahara and Weliweriya in the Gampaha district. It killed three and injured many. Many other issues arise. Have the Police abandoned their role in managing civil commotion, and must the Army be called in at the slightest whiff of a street demonstration?
Sophisticated anti-riot paraphernalia is flaunted by the Government to warn present and future trouble-makers. Whatever happened to water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and batons – and where had the paramilitary units been on that day? Had heavily armed soldiers to be deployed to wear masks and give chase when protestors fled in terror, causing death to students and injury to bystanders, including journalists?
The inhabitants of several villages in the Gampaha district had agitated for five days demanding to know if their water was contaminated. Scientific investigations are being conducted to determine the veracity of claims that natural water sources were polluted with effluents discharged from the Venigros factory in Nedungamuwa in Weliweriya.
The plant is owned by Dipped Products PLC, a member of the Hayleys conglomerate that manufactures rubber gloves for export. While it is already established that the groundwater in the area has a significantly low pH, more research is required to prove whether chemicals from Venigros had actually caused this acidity. There are, reportedly several other similar factories in the area as well.
The people of the area had a legitimate right to protest.
As one editorialist pointed out, there are more than 50 ‘people’s representatives’ in the district, but the villagers were forced on to the streets because their agitation fell on deaf ears. They had a right to demand that the State give them clean water and that the factory be shut down. The Government says, though belatedly, such orders were given but the protests continued and were instigated by political elements. New theories abound whether those ‘political elements’ were a ‘home and home’ turf battle between business rivals within the Government itself. Yet, the question that arose was over the Government’s reaction to ‘call out the Army’.
The end result has also had a damaging impact on the image of the Army and detractors are quick to compare the conduct of those soldiers with the tactics adopted in the North to quell the separatist insurgency not so long ago. It has given a leg up to those who want to renew their call for a war crimes tribunal in Sri Lanka, especially on the eve of the visit of the UN Human Rights Commissioner. That is an unfair comparison though, and it also can be counter-argued that the Army does not discriminate between races.
Someone in Colombo panicked and bungled in putting the Army into disrepute with their otherwise adoring public. It is no doubt the duty of the Government is to maintain law and order, but it didn’t see the ‘big picture’, that the country is under the world’s spotlight for human rights abuses. To say, the Army reacted the way it did to a few ‘Molotov cocktails’, if any, is an insult to the force that braved much deadlier missiles.
The basic facts of the military’s attack have been widely reported ever since that fateful day ten days ago. It is now the subject of a Police and internal Army investigation, although both processes, when adopted in the past, have inspired little confidence.
The Police force today is a sorry, toothless pitiful mess with few redeeming qualities. A retired Deputy Inspector General of Police from the ‘old school of good cops’, wrote in the Sunday Times on July 28, just days before the incident that the Police Department has become an object of public ridicule and contempt. It is riddled with corruption and political patronage. It is no wonder that the villagers of Gampaha had also treated the policemen with scant regard. This is a major issue for the Government to sort out.
The Military Spokesman maintains that the Army was sent to Weliweriya under Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). This allows a Magistrate, Government Agent or any police officer not below the rank of a Superintendent of Police to request the intervention of armed forces personnel to disperse an assembly that cannot be otherwise dispersed, in the interest of public security.
But it also states that every such commissioned or non-commissioned officer thus requisitioned “shall use as little force and do as little injury to person and property as may be consistent with dispersing the assembly and arresting and detaining such persons”. The contrary was clearly observed in Belummahara and Weliweriya.
The Defence Secretary is on record saying that it was the Inspector General of Police who asked for the Army’s assistance. Then, was it done by invoking the CPC?
Every month, President Mahinda Rajapaksa issues an order under Section 40 of the Public Security Ordinance which states that he, ” by this order shall call out all the members of the Armed Forces…for the maintenance of public order in the areas specified…” The areas specified cover every administrative district in the country and the last order was made on August 1.
One might debate whether, four years after the defeat of the LTTE it is really necessary to keep the Army fully mobilised. Yet, it probably comes back to the root problem; the collapse of the country’s Police Service and their failure to earn the confidence of the people and keep the peace. The MoD (Ministry of Defence) must know this best and therefore be tempted to seek recourse with the Armed Forces for what is fundamentally Police work. That is a dangerous principle and flawed premise to rely on. It leads to the militarisation of the body-politic, China-style, one might add. The willful destruction of the Police Service by the political machinery must end and there must be immediate, heavy investment in improving its capacity and capabilities; most importantly, its independence. Politicians of all hues must step back and let the Police do their job.
The behaviour of the Army in Weliweriya has unfortunately raised troubling questions about this regime’s approach and reaction to dissent. This is not the first time a demonstration has been violently crushed. Will it be the last