Yesterday’s newspapers reported that three non-commissioned officers (NCOs) of the Sri Lanka Army have been arrested and remanded over the Rathupaswela shooting in August 2013. This followed protestors alleging that a factory in the area manufacturing rubber gloves had polluted ground water in the neighborhood rendering their well water unsafe for drinking. They blocked traffic movement on the Kandy road resulting in the deploying of troops who fired on the demonstrators killing three and injuring 26. It is likely that all those killed and hurt did not suffer gunshot injuries. The shooting provoked panic and a stampede and some of the injuries would have been due to that. After the shooting and the pandemonium that followed, soldiers were also reported to have run around roughing up people on the street.
The aftermath of an event which most believed was an over-reaction on the part of the military saw the factory moved to the Biyagama Export Promotion Zone where it has long been in production. There was no conclusive proof that the business, adding value to locally grown rubber, was responsible for the pollution rendering some wells in the area unsafe. Nevertheless, emotions generated by the shooting made it necessary to relocate the factory which was a unit of a local multinational company that has done very well for itself and the country over a long period of time adding value to home grown rubber. That company’s hand protection segment manufactures not only in Sri Lanka but also in Thailand as well. We do not know whether residents of the affected area are now provided pipe borne water as was promised at the time or whether bowser deliveries that were begun then continue; for that matter it is not known whether moving the factory had resulted in the improvement of well water in the area.
But what is known is that the brigadier commanding the detachment deployed to restore order when demonstrators rendered the Kandy road impassable, was given a diplomatic assignment and sent abroad. Also that it took a change of regime and over three years to move forward with whatever investigations were begun at the time of the shooting. It is very clear that there has been a lot of foot dragging on investigations into incidents where there appeared to be a degree of culpability on the part of the then government and its various agencies. Notable in this respect are the Lasantha Wickrematunga assassination, the murder of the well known rugger player Wasim Thajudeen, the abduction and torture of journalists Keith Noyahr, the attempted murder of editor Upali Tennekoon and the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. After months and years of lackadaisical, half-hearted or no investigation whatever, it is only now that the wheels have begun turning. Some arrests have been made and some suspect placed in remand. But whether enough evidence to convict suspects in a court of law has been gathered remains an open question.
The fact that some progress has been made in investigations, together with some arrests and remanding of suspects is well and good; but it is obvious to all that the real culprits behind these atrocities are not the physical perpetrators. The various hit men belonging to state agencies had nothing personal against their victims. They were clearly assigned to do the dirty and there is up to now no indication that the long arm of the law is closing in on those who issued the hit orders. There have, of course been some high profile names mentioned in media reports and some ball passing, such as exchanges between former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. The name of a top intelligence officer too has, so to speak, been “mentioned in dispatches.” At least one senior police officer has been on remand for a period of several months in connection with the Thajudeen case. There was also a bizarre incident of a suspected suicide of an ex-soldier, allegedly leaving a letter owning up to a crime for which some of his mates had been arrested.
Let us hope that those who unleashed the hit men are at least suffering some pangs of conscience about the arrest and remand or persons who had acted on their orders. But whether those who issue such orders have any conscience whatever is a moot point. The hoary old Sinhala idiom that “the king’s dog is more vicious than the king” is replete with wisdom. Most patronage seekers are of that ilk. Unfortunately the long war and the need to overcome an enemy who did not fight according to Queensberry rules resulted in counter measures that were necessary though not the best. This resulted in dehumanizing some of those who had to do what was necessary in the context of the war. It would have been too much to expect that there would be no post-war spillover of such practices both at command and operational levels. Some of the atrocities mentioned in this commentary occurred while the war was being fought. It is not outside the bounds of possibility that some of the perpetrators, brutalized by the war, justified at least in their own minds that means employed justified the end of winning the war.