Photo courtesy Ada Derana

Lieutenant General Daya Ratnayake, a former military spokesman and decorated combat officer, assumed duties on the 1st of August 2013 as the 20th commander of the Sri Lanka Army. No former commander ever assumed duties under more inauspicious circumstances for barely had the ceremonial takeover of command concluded than straightaway came reports that the Sri Lanka Army had clashed with unarmed protesters in Weliveriya in the Gampaha District, with scores injured and several dead.

The new commander has ordered an Army inquiry into the incident and notwithstanding the same, since civilians are dead, with emergency regulations no longer in force, a magisterial inquiry must also be held into the deaths of the individuals concerned.

Awaiting the pending results of the inquiry and at least the magisterial inquiry report must be made public to show justice being manifestly done; the following are some crucial aspects and facts which require the attention of the Army and Magisterial inquiries as well as the attention of the Rajapakse Administration.

A comprehensive defense review is required

Any country following the conclusion of a long drawn out war, would take stock of its post war situation, its post war national security challenges and assess its needs and required resources. Sri Lanka has not really done anything like that and just continued with the huge military machine built up to fight the Tigers, long after they are no more in Sri Lanka. Consequently we have a larger defense budget in peace time than in war time and the utilization of the military in everything from the most benign urban development projects to the potentially more potentially deadly crowd control as Weliweriya demonstrated. A comprehensive defense review in Sri Lanka is required and the Rajapakse Administration should engage in such an exercise.

Should the military be deployed against unarmed civilians?

The United States military has a policy of never deploying its forces for armed action within the United States in situations where the military would be expected to combat American civilians. Specially trained police and the equivalent of our special task force (STF) are available for deployment against even heavily armed civilians, but essentially civilians are managed and controlled by a civilian force rather than the military, an almost essential feature of a democratic and free society. The rationale behind this policy is rather simple. Militaries and military personal are not trained to either use minimum force or deal with apprehending or neutralizing opponents, be they unarmed, lightly armed or even heavily armed, as police forces are trained. Military personnel are trained to defend against or attack and destroy armed actors engaged in waging war, whether such war is conventional, jungle guerilla type or urban terroristic. By no stretch of the imagination were the Weliweriya crowds, any of these.  With the emergency laws no longer in effect the legal basis for the military deployment was also dubious.

The rules of engagement of the military and respect for the media

Now the military spokesman in his initial response was to claim that the police had requested Army assistance for a situation which it could not control or contain. This is in itself surprising, because one presumes the police should have requested its riot squad and not a military contingent of almost brigade strength headed by an infantry brigadier.  However there are key rules of engagement which the inquiry should explore, such as at what point and how long after using tear gas was lethal or deadly force used and why? Namely why did the Army fire live ammunition at crowds that were clearly running away. Generally the objective of crowd and riot control is to disperse. So when crowds were dispersing why was deadly force used. Numerous documented eye witness accounts state that when fleeing protestors took refuge in the nearby Catholic church, any place of religious worship a historic and time honored place of refuge and safety. Yet, like in the Ratnayake Free Trade Zone protest, where the protestors who fled into the factories where followed into the private premises for retribution with deadly force rather than apprehension, the military by numerous eye witness accounts, followed the villages into the church, forced them to kneel down and then split open skulls and caused grievous hurt with rifle butts. There have been some allegations by security authorities that homemade explosives similar to Molotov cocktails were used by the protestors. Even if this was so, an issue would arise as to if the counter force used was both proportionate and specific and directed at the threat. Initial reports seem to indicate that the deadly violence was retributive in nature. Also the military seemingly had a policy of targeting the accredited media present at the scene of a matter of national importance. 

The challenges of demilitarization in the North

From the Association of Working Journalists, the free media movement and the Bar Association, civil society groups have expressed deep concern regarding the incident and in the case of the Bar Association offered pro bono legal services to watch over the interests of the deceased, injured and other victims.

The incident in Weliweriya brings home to the South, the issue of a militarization of society and some empathy with the desire of Tamil leaders for a less heavy handed military presence in the North. Due to the nature of our civil war being essentially ethnic in character, the Achilles heel of the Sri Lankan military is that it is nearly mono ethnically Sinhala and especially the North has a preponderance of Tamils. The thought that might arise among observers is if this is how the Regime uses its military in the Gampaha District against Sinhala villages who are the SLFP’s core constituency, complaining about a particularly non political issue of safe drinking water, then how would they possibly treat Tamil civilians demanding democratic and human rights. As respected academic, writer and diplomat Dr.Dayan Jayathilake wrote “The war came home to the South when the same army that was deployed to liberate Maavilarru was brutally and stupidly deployed against unarmed Sinhala protestors demanding potable water for their daily consumption. In doing so, the regime has irreparably gashed the social contract. Credibility and legitimacy are leaking through that gash”.