Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa yesterday alleged that in the wake of the recent army crackdown on Weliweriya protesters, on the night of August 6, an attempt was being made to strengthen the call for an international war crimes investigation against the Sri Lanka Army.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa lashed out at the main Opposition UNP for calling for an international investigation into incidents involving the army and those protesting against latex gloves manufacturing factory situated at Nedungamuwa, Weliweriya managed by Dipped Products PLC, of Hayleys Group, which is alleged to have polluted water in the Rathupaswela area.
UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake issued a statement on behalf of the UNP early this week calling for an international probe.
Rajapaksa, who is also Secretary to the Urban Development Ministry, said that army headquarters and the police were in the process of conducting separate investigations into the circumstances under which troops had opened fire on the crowd.
Three persons, namely K. A. Akila Dinesh Jayewardene (17), Ravishan Perera (18) and Nilantha Pushpakumara (29) succumbed to their injuries suffered during the crackdown.
The Defence Secretary insisted that the army moved in only after IGP N. K. Illangakoon had requested Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for support. “There is a procedure for deployment of security forces in the absence of emergency. And, on any occasion, the mere presence of troops at trouble spots was enough to prevent untoward incidents. Unfortunately, troops reacted when missiles were thrown at them.”
Responding to a query, the Defence Secretary said that action would be taken against anyone, if found guilty of excesses, though individual acts of soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to tarnish the image of the army. “There are elements resentful of the popularity of the armed forces and President Rajapaksa. We are mindful of their strategy.”
The call for international probe was meant to bolster the campaign for an external war crimes probe against the armed forces. The bottom line was that those who had been gunning for the government over alleged war crimes since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 were now using the Weliweriya incident to justify their allegations, Rajapaksa said.
An irate Rajapaksa pointed out that the Opposition was working overtime to compare the Weliweriya incident with the final battle against the LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal in May 2009. He stressed that there was no similarity between the two incidents.
The Defence Secretary regretted that the Opposition had also likened the difficulties experienced by residents of Rathupaswela to those of those deprived of water by the LTTE when Prabhakaran ordered the closure of Mavil-Aru anicut in July 2006. The Defence Secretary said that the Opposition had also demanded that United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, who was scheduled to visit the country later this month, visit Weliweriya instead of North to inquire into human rights violations. He was responding to a statement attributed to UNP Gampaha District MP Karu Jayasuriya.
The Defence Secretary acknowledged that Rathupaswela residents had a genuine grievance as their water sources were polluted. Having admitted the problem faced by the people, he alleged that an interested party possibly including some of those dismissed from the factory on disciplinary grounds had made the people think the Hayleys Group was responsible for polluting their water.
Following a meeting chaired by him on Aug. 6 at the Ministry of Defence, the management of the factory had agreed to suspend operations pending investigations into polluted water, the Defence Secretary said. “We agreed to get the Industrial Technology Institute, the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, the University of Moratuwa and the University of Kelaniya to investigate and find out the causes of low pH level in the well water in the area”
The Defence Secretary said an agreement had been reached in the presence of about 35 persons from the Weliweriya area, including Parish priest of Weliweriya, Rev. Fr. Lakpriya Nonis. Fr. Nonis would be able to explain what transpired at the Defence Ministry in the run-up to the protest taking a violent turn, Rajapaksa said.
The trouble started at Weliweriya only after the successful conclusion of the talks at the Defence Ministry, the Defence Secretary said “There were some people who resented our efforts to tackle the issue. Those at the meeting could explain the measures taken to settle the issue,” he added.
The official said that the government had gone to the extent of closing the factory pending comprehensive testing of water samples. “We didn’t hesitate to suspend its operations in spite of heavy financial losses to the owning company and impact on the economy as we felt we had to take immediate action to bring relief to the public.”
The Defence Secretary noted that Rev. Fr. Nonis, present at the discussion, had alleged that the army went on the rampage at Weliweriya causing death and destruction.
Meanwhile, Ananda Panwila, Additional Director of Industrial technology Institute (ITI) yesterday told The Island that the ITI was in the process of checking water samples. According to him, the ITI had obtained water samples from wells 300, 600 and 1,000 meters away from the factory soon after the trouble erupted. Panwil said:”We have completed testing water samples taken from wells 300 m away from the factory and are in the process of testing water samples taken from wells 600 m away. We collected water samples from wells 1,000 m away from the factory today.”