If one needed further evidence that the wheels of Sri Lankan democracy are coming off on the militarisation expressway it was provided last Thursday. On the 1st of August, the nondescript town of Weliweriya, little over an hour from Colombo, was the scene of an army-orchestrated blood-bath, which has so far claimed six lives, including school-going children, with several others still critically wounded. That four years after a brutal end to an equally brutal civil war, dozens of soldiers armed with T-56 assault rifles and clad in flak jackets should be called in to face angry citizens protesting against effluents from a local factory polluting their ground water, speaks volumes for the descent of democracy and human rights in post-war Sri Lanka.
Weliweriya, for those less familiar with the geography of Sri Lanka’s conflict, lies in Sri Lanka’s Western Province, far from the battlegrounds of the North and the East. Yet, like so much else post-war, what happened there echoes the conflict. One eyewitness told the Sunday Times that when a nun locked some of the fleeing protestors in a room inside a nearby church and pleaded with soldiers not to harm anyone, one of them placed a rifle at her chest and shouted, “Who is there to look after you now? We defeated the Tigers. You are of no use.”
The Sunday Leader, a newspaper that has increasingly become less independent since its former Editor was recently forced to flee the country following a confrontation with the powerful Defence Secretary, quoted one eyewitness as saying:
“When the army started firing, most of us ran to St Anthony’s Church, Weliweriya. The army then followed us to the church and started firing live ammunition that injured many. Then they threatened and forced the people to kneel down on the church grounds and started assaulting them with bicycle chains, clubs and also with rifle butts.”
Another eyewitness is reported as saying that army first fired into the air, without warning, and proceeded to take out street lamps, plunging the area into darkness. Moreover media reports also suggest that electricity was cut to disrupt operations of any CCTV cameras that maybe in the vicinity. In fact, a Brigadier commanding the forces reportedly told media persons on the scene “Do not try to photograph or video when we disperse the crowds. If you do that, we will smash your cameras.” And that is just what they did, with journalists being singled out, reflecting a pattern of media repression that has long been in evidence in Sri Lanka.
Reflecting on international opinion, Dayan Jayatilleke, formerly Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, noted, “The obvious observations will be, if this is how the State authorities treat unarmed Sinhalese, largely Buddhist civilian men, women and children who are protesting against polluted water, how must that state have treated the Tamils in the closing stages of the war?” While there is plenty of evidence to suggest how Tamils were treated in the closing stages of the war, it is important to remember that Weliweriya happened in an area fully governed by elected political institutions whereas the very same military apparatus has run the North of the country since the end of the war.
Even as citizens were being shot and brutalised, the factory in question, Dipped Products PLC, part of the powerful Hayleys conglomerate, received police and army protection. Local residents hold the effluents from the factory responsible for contaminating their ground water, rendering it unsuitable even for bathing and sanitary uses, let alone drinking.
The Sri Lankan state’s response to democratic and popular protest in Weliweriya is consistent with its behaviour in the recent past. Late last year, security forces attacked students of Jaffna University and occupied it alleging that students were engaged in commemorating the LTTE. In February 2012, security forces opened fired on fisher-folk protesting fuel price hikes, killing one. In 2011, one worker was killed and many injured during a crack down on workers protesting against moves to privatise pensions, which was followed by a military occupation of free trade zones. No one has been held to account for any of these killings.
Militarisation now envelopes virtually every aspect of Sri Lankan society from education to tourism and development to sports. The close alignment of interests between a militarised state and business and corporate capital is a particularly important feature of Sri Lanka today. In addition to the military itself developing extensive commercial interests, the Urban Development Authority, now under the Ministry of Defence, has become the primary vehicle for channelling prime urban real estate in Colombo to domestic and foreign capital.
It should come as no surprise then that the state as well as the company have been quick to blame “vested elements […] with political motives” and “those who are trying to fulfil narrow political agendas by creating a violent atmosphere” respectively for the tragedy of Weliweriya and Balummahara, where the military first assaulted protestors. In fact, neither the Defence Secretary nor the company in their statements referred to above actually offered any expression of regret or even condoled the deaths.
But Weliweriya is not merely just another symptom of militarisation; it is also a message. It is a clear signal of what lies in store for those who may dare to publicly assert themselves and underlines the stranglehold of the regime around expression of dissent and protest. To the extent that Weliweriya may shrink the horizon of genuinely collective democratic expression, it adds a few more bricks in the wall that the Rajapakse regime is constantly building to fortify itself.
To counter-act any possible repercussions, the regime and its media and public relations machinery are currently in overdrive, making placatory gestures and floating conspiracy theories—including one repeated by a government minister that it was all instigated by a Western nation to force the closure of the glove factory and deter foreign investment. Irrespective of how fanciful this sounds, it is telling that even in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy, there is concern about the possible negative signals the closure of a polluting factory may send to foreign investment.
Needless to say, as in the past, it has been announced that investigations are underway and most likely a suitable scapegoat will soon be found. Even as the blood on the streets of Weliweriya and the grounds of St. Anthony’s church is cleaned up, the dead are buried and the injured recover, and even if the question of water pollution is satisfactorily resolved, militarisation has left one more indelible and bloody stain on the rapidly discolouring fabric that is Sri Lankan democracy.