Thursday, 8 August 2013 00:13
In a shell shocked village in Gampaha, a once loved military is in disgrace. For a newly installed army commander, an officer of repute and courage, the horror of the Weliweriya tragedy happened on his first day on the job. Stony silence from the upper echelons of the Rajapaksa Administration for an entire week following the chaos, is ample proof that the country’s ruling elite knows just how damaging the violence has been on the national psyche, particularly in the UPFA stronghold of Gampaha. To date, nobody knows who deployed troops to crush a public demonstration against contaminated ground-water, or why.
“...A soldier when answering to his conscience not only has the right, but also the duty, to disobey an unlawful order. It is one of his privileges of serving a democracy, as it is one of his burdens, that he must answer for his own actions” – Assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, at the convocation of the Kotelawala Defence Academy, 3 October 2000
When Lt. General Daya Ratnayake assumed office as the new Army Chief last Thursday (1) morning, he could have had no inkling what the evening would bring. The new General, a war veteran and respected soldier, made a few poignant remarks at his installation ceremony held at Army Headquarters Colombo.
“The Army has come a long way not only in structure, numbers and military hardware, but also in professionalism and reputation. Sustaining the image and its dignity, gained through unparalleled sacrifice, is therefore the most sacred duty of every serving member. Unlike most Armies, emerging from protracted and bloody conflicts rejected by the masses, our Army continues to receive the respect and gratitude of the nation we served, a fact that we should never forget,” he said in his first speech as Commander of the Army.
Lt. General Ratnayake has a proud history during the Fourth Eelam War, when as Commanding Officer of the 23 Division in the east, he was instrumental in the operations to liberate regions of the Eastern Province from the LTTE. Unlike some phases of the battle to retake the north, the military’s operations in the east were largely controversy-free, ensuring that the legacy of commanding officers at the time, remained unsullied.
When then Brigadier Daya Ratnayake was heading the 23 Division, the LTTE’s Panichankerni base was taken over by the 6th Gemunu Watch regiment led by then Lt. Colonel, Deshapriya Gunewardane.
By accident or design, when the war for water in Weliweriya broke out last Thursday night, both these men happened to be in the thick of things. When the Government decided to deploy troops to disperse a protest for water that was blocking the main Colombo-Kandy Road in Weliweriya and Belummahara, Deshapriya Gunewardane, now Brigadier, was sent in as the commanding officer.
Witness to the ‘war’
The rest, as they say, is history. Valiant attempts were made to prevent the media from reporting on the incidents in Weliweriya between 5 p.m. and midnight on 1 August. But the coverage was relentless.
Reporters caught in the melee threw their cameras into the fleeing crowd to protect images of the clashes. Videographers crouched for hours on the top floors of buildings to capture devastating visuals of the armed forces attack on the demonstration. Journalists spent nights in hen coops and pig pens inside the besieged villages as security forces combed residences later that night searching for demonstrators. At least two reporters sustained injuries from the clashes between residents and military personnel.
Every attempt made to turn the Weliweriya clashes into another ‘war without witness’ failed as footage emerged that same night of armed soldiers firing into the crowd as they advanced. Some channels removed the video content from their websites just hours after it first aired, but the damage was already done. Journalists stationed in the town all night reported they heard gunfire and screaming from a nearby church. The morning after, villagers still huddled inside St. Anthony’s Church Weliweriya told reporters how black uniformed troops with their faces masked had stormed the church and assaulted demonstrators seeking refuge there.
The reports sent shockwaves throughout the country. The death toll from the clashes rose over the weekend, with official estimates putting the fatalities at three, and at least two of these from gunshot wounds to the head and chest. More than 20 people were injured in the clashes.
Lt. Gen. Ratnayake took the first step in the right direction by appointing a military board of inquiry to investigate allegations that soldiers fired at unarmed protestors. While the report may raise more questions than it provides answers, the speed with which the promise of a probe came speaks volumes for the incumbent Commander of the Army.
Senior Government Ministers have broken their silence on the issue, claiming that the protestors had wielded petrol bombs and thrown broken bottles at advancing troops. The residents admit to having employed these crude weapons, when the soldiers started firing. Either way, eyewitnesses claim, the response was not proportionate.
In the aftermath, both the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (recently given a boost under the auspices of the Commonwealth Secretariat) and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have commenced recording statements about the Weliweriya violence. Together with the Army investigation, if officials are permitted to conduct inquiries impartially, these reports will provide a clearer picture about the clashes.
A key question in any investigation into the Weliweriya violence will be who ordered the troops in to the area to crush the demonstration and gave soldiers the green light to allegedly shoot into the crowd. And in the event to fire was an order, why did the soldier’s own moral code not prevent him from releasing his fire into a group of civilian demonstrators? Or has it become impossible for the Sri Lankan soldier to tell the difference between enemy combatant and civilian protestor?
There is little clarity from Government quarters also as to why the regime opted for the military before it deployed the riot police. The military, trained to spot and fight the enemy, is much less adept in crowd control, which requires a subtler, less aggressive approach. Where the army is trained to respond to attacks, riot police personnel are trained to remain calm in the face of intense provocation, analysts say, and even in Sri Lanka where training is often inadequate, the riot policeman is likely to know better how to react against an unruly protestor compared to a soldier trained to kill ruthless terrorists.
The party line
Senior SLFP Ministers including Nimal Siripala De Silva and Dulles Alahapperuma have been put forward by the regime to trot out the party line about “provocation by the protestors” and alleged vested interests involved in the demonstration. Each time, the Government statements have raised the ire of residents in the area, who insist the demonstration was spontaneous and of the people. The water problem, these residents say, was common to all, and so the streets were filled that Thursday with mothers carrying young children, the elderly and students.
A silent President
Interestingly, this palpable anger on the streets of Weliweriya has been met with stony silence from the most crucial quarters of the ruling regime. While Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a brief statement through the official Government news portal claiming the Army was provoked to react, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP’s Gampaha District Leader and Minister Basil Rajapaksa have remained mum on the clashes. The usually affable President Rajapaksa who relies on his charm to get his Government out of many sticky situations, made an appearance to inaugurate the first phase of the Colombo Port Expansion Project on Monday. Sailing on a naval tug boat as he perused the new Container Terminal, the President seemed as far removed as possible from the tragedy unfolding in Weliweriya, where one by one the town was burying its dead.
Apart from issuing a ‘presidential directive’ to pay compensation to the victims of the clashes, President Rajapaksa has refrained from associating himself or the most senior members of his regime with the violence. Equally deafening is the silence from the regime’s chief conspiracy theorists. The Jathika Hela Urumaya and the National Freedom Front led by Wimal Weerawansa, have stayed determinedly away from the issue, clearly unable to take a side. This is after all a Sinhala village accusing the armed forces of certain atrocities.
It is deeply damaging for the ruling UPFA coalition that the chaos in Weliweriya has come at such an inopportune moment. The Government after much dragging of feet has finally set the wheels in motion for a provincial election in the north. As it prepares for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November, the Rajapaksa regime has stepped into overdrive on the accountability front, reopening investigations into high profile murders in which armed forces personnel are implicated and even setting up a commission on disappearances. On the surface at least, the pressure from the Commonwealth and the international community appeared to be working, motivating the administration to make symbolic gestures in the right direction.
The moves were hastened by the impending advent of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on 25 August for a five day, no-nonsense visit. Yet all of the seemingly progressive steps appear to have been undone by the Weliweriya violence that has once more revealed in ways the regime would have preferred not to, the true nature of the State. The incident and its implications create another flurry of headaches for the Commonwealth Secretariat that has been pushing Sri Lanka to deliver on the human rights and democracy fronts ahead of the summit. It has also left the diplomatic community wondering whether the Gampaha clashes will be a focal point for High Commissioner Pillay, during her visit.
There is an interesting statistic doing the rounds in opposition circles since the Weliweriya attack. The little town in Gampaha, it is said, provided the largest blood donations on behalf of soldiers fighting the LTTE in the north during the final phase of the conflict. While that claim is not verifiable, in the tense village 24 hours after the attack, donors vowed to cut off the limbs from which their blood was drawn as a happy sacrifice for the heroes of war.
When it comes to the tussle between the villagers and soldiers in the Weliweriya water crisis, there are many parallels to draw. Another war, seven years ago in July also started because of a water crisis. The LTTE’s decision to close the gates of the Mavil Aru anicut in their territory, cutting off water supply to Sinhalese farmers in the east, offered the Government a humanitarian reason to go to war. The offensive was not to acquire land, but to provide civilians with their most basic needs.
When the history of the Fourth Eelam war is written, the LTTE decision to shut the sluice gates will be called a major tactical blunder. It signalled the beginning of the Tigers’ end. What history will say of the tactical wisdom of the crackdown on a demonstration for clean water by villagers in the south remains to be seen.
Every Government is predestined to have a week like this one. A week when none of its charms, promises and excuses can hold up against a brutally grim reality. A week when the cries of a people wronged grow so loud, they drown out the State propaganda machinery. For six hours on Thursday, 1 August 2013, the Rajapaksa charm broke. The result has been a propaganda nightmare.
In the Weliweriya aftermath, the Government will attempt media clampdowns and mop up operations. It will place its trust in those old faithfuls – the LTTE rump, international conspiracies, political vested interests to build its defence against the use of brutal force. It will blame the protesters for resorting to violence against troops sent to clear an arterial road into the capital. It will silence the victim families and community leaders still willing to bear witness to the violence on sacred ground.
The morning after the attacks, military personnel attempted to wash away blood stains and splatter on the floors of St. Anthony’s Church, Weliweriya. Skilful though the soldiers undoubtedly were, they missed a few bloody boot prints and small pools of blood. The Rajapaksa administration will encounter similar problems as it attempts to gloss over the ‘battle for water’ in Weliweriya. It will succeed in the short term. The media will stop chasing the story and the people will forget, even in the beleaguered town. In Weliweriya and surrounding villages nobody will ever protest for clean water again.
It is said of the ancient Chinese form of torture and punishment, ‘Ling chi’ that death comes slowly to the victim. It is death by a thousand cuts, administered slowly and over a period of time until the tortured finally bleeds out. Spiritually, Ling Chi ensures the separation of the body, ensuring that after death, the spirit of the victim will never be whole again. In ancient China, the practice was reserved as punishment for the most heinous crimes, such as treason or patricide. The incumbent administration, like all-powerful Governments that have gone before and must follow, will finally be undone by their own metaphorical 1,000 cuts. Some cuts will erode its legitimacy to such a degree that it will effectively, never be restored to ‘wholeness’ again. Doubt and suspicion will persist about its every move to a greater degree than ever before. So the Government may carry on, basking in the glory of CHOGM and its increased international stature as chair of the Commonwealth for two more years. Outwardly, all will be as cheerful and optimistic as usual. But in the grand scheme of things, the Weliweriya ‘cut’ has left the regime unalterably poorer, in argument and credibility. The naked brutality that left dozens of water protestors bloody and bruised in the small Gampaha town has also left the ruling administration bleeding.
Altering the HR discourse
For the first time since the end of the war in the north, the value of human rights and the freedom of expression – concepts painstakingly sullied by the Government as being a conspiracy of the West against Sri Lanka – was brought home to Sinhala villagers of the south as the bullets rained down on their demonstration last Thursday. This is the UPFA’s core support base, the same people who unquestioningly bought the administration’s rhetoric that it was permissible to deny certain rights and civil liberties to its countrymen in the north in the name of national security. The ostrich effect prevailing in the south has allowed the Government to discredit growing international calls for accountability in the last phase of the war and relegate documentary films about the final days of battle in the north to works of fiction.
Taking arms against unarmed civilians engaged in a demonstration for clean water has effectively yanked heads out of the sand in the island’s south and forced them to stare into the abyss of some ugly home truths. Villagers in the area openly condemn the conduct of their once beloved soldiers and wonder aloud if there may be some truth to the claims of ill treatment of Tamil civilians during the war.
The realisation dawning in Weliweriya today that a State that upholds human rights offers them protection too, is therefore patently disadvantageous to the current rulers. Suddenly the human rights debate is no longer about shells falling on Tamil civilians in a war zone, terrorists being tortured and killed or dissenting journalists being disappeared. Black Thursday in Weliweriya brought the grim realisation home to the people of the south that it may also be about shooting dead the patriotic Sinhalese villager, begging for water.