Weliweriya worsens Govt.’s woes worldwide
- Cardinal’s charge of sacrilege hits international headlines, while Muslim leaders work out complaint to Islamic world
- Gampaha district police forbidden from using weapons against protestors; Army called in
It is ironic but true. The UPFA Government, through default, is adding to its list of woes over newer rights issues. That it would draw the attention of the international community through next month’s sessions of the UN Human Rights Council and thereafter is in little doubt.
The latest issues relate to both human rights and the right to worship, both guaranteed by Sri Lanka’s Constitution. The former, amidst other accusations, is the army firing in Weliweriya last week. As more and more evidence unfolds, the serious nature of the incident and its far-reaching ramifications are becoming clearer. The Catholic community including His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, are incensed over troops entering St. Anthony’s church in Weliweriya. His remarks in a statement “that it is a sacrilege for anyone to enter such sacred precincts with arms in their hands and behave in a violent manner there” are already reverberating in Catholic churches and their community in important world capitals. He added: “We wish to reiterate at this point that we do not accept attempts to resolve questions by either taking the law into one’s own hands and engaging in causing disruption to people’s normal way of life or by using one’s power in a repressive manner to suppress protests, even if they get out of control. For every question the best way out is the way of peaceful discussion and dialogue….”
Formulating a full report to OIC
This week Muslim parliamentarians of the UPFA including cabinet ministers met in the Parliament complex. The subject of discussion was reported attacks on mosques and an alleged incident where pork was thrown inside a prayer area in the mosque.
Speakers alleged that no action had been taken by the authorities concerned on the latter incident. However, they claimed that the owner of the premises, which held the mosque, had been “coerced” to swear an affidavit that no mosque existed in the premises. They also claimed that he was warned he would not be allowed to carry on a business in that area if he did not sign. Senior Minister A.H.M. Fowzie was tasked by those present to seek a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss issues. “Until yesterday,” a minister who did not wish to be named said, “we have not received a date and time.”
President Mahinda Rajapaksa being greeted by Uganda’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Asuman Kiyingi, on arrival at Entebbe airport for an official visit to Uganda recently. The Sri Lanka Government has allocated US$ 150 million to be invested in a project to provide safe water to the people of western Uganda
The Sunday Times learnt that an influential section of Muslims including some parliamentarians are busy formulating a ‘full report’ for an upcoming session of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), the largest international organisation affiliated to the United Nations. They refused to be publicly identified. They say they want their issue to be raised at the annual co-ordination meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of OIC member states at the United Nations, New York in September and ‘appropriate action taken.’ Heads of State, Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers meet during this period for the 68th sessions of the UN General Assembly. It may be recalled that the OIC wrote to President Rajapaksa early this year over alleged attacks on mosques.
Navi Pillay’s visit
Together with Weliweriya, the other twin issues have loomed just ahead of the visit to Sri Lanka in exactly two weeks (August 25) by Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is for a three-day visit. Her main brief comes from the second US backed resolution adopted by the UNHRC in Geneva in March this year. It mandated High Commissioner Pillay “with input from relevant special procedures mandate holders, as appropriate, to present an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-fourth session, and a comprehensive report followed by a discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its twenty-fifth session.” This 24th session of the UNHRC will be held in Geneva from September 9 to 27. It is a precursor to the March 2014 UNHRC sessions in Geneva which will review Sri Lanka’s case and the need for any further action.
UK and EU urge investigation
Both the United States and Britain have already condemned the Weliweriya incidents. Britain’s Foreign Office Minister Alastair Burt said in a statement posted on the official website referring to the attack on a journalist covering the protest: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim and his family. Our consular staff has visited him in hospital today, and we’re ready to provide further assistance if needed. It remains unclear whether this horrific incident was connected to the victim’s work as a journalist. The Sri Lankan authorities must quickly identify who committed this crime and bring them to justice. There has been a range of attacks in Sri Lanka on journalists, civil society organisations and others in recent years. To date, too many incidents have had little investigation and no resolution. The UK and EU have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to do everything possible to investigate such incidents and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.”
On Friday, the US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, told a news briefing, “The United States is concerned by recent violent incidents, including shootings of unarmed protesters in Weliweriya, Sri Lanka. We offer our condolences to the families of the deceased and injured, continue to urge all sides to exercise restraint, and urge the authorities to respect the right of peaceful protest. We are particularly concerned by reports that protestors seeking refuge within a Catholic church were attacked there. There is never any excuse for violence, particularly in a house of worship. We call for a thorough and transparent inquiry into all aspects of the Weliweriya violence, for those conclusions to be made public, and for there to be a credible mechanism to prosecute any wrongdoing.”
In the light of the Pillay visit and the impending UNHRC sessions, the Government, it is pertinent to note, went into reverse gear in the recent months. At the last sessions in Geneva, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who led the Sri Lanka delegation not only took a very hostile stance against those raising issues over Sri Lanka but also undiplomatically made some strong personal attacks on Ms. Pillay during his main speech. However, it is now clear the Government has made an about turn. It has placed on fast track the implementation of some human rights issues raised by the UNHRC. Twelve Police Special Task Force (STF) commandos, including an Assistant Superintendent (ASP), have been arrested, produced in courts and remanded.
They are alleged to have been involved in the killing of six Tamil students of the Katubedde Campus of the University of Moratuwa on January 1, 2006 whilst they were in Trincomalee. More recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) have been added to the National Action Plan following a cabinet decision. It came on the recommendation of President Rajapaksa. The Government has declared that a Commission of Inquiry would be set up to probe disappearances for the past 30 years — the entire duration of the separatist war. The Govt. is clearly arming itself with these measures, in a change of mind, to tell the UNHRC and thus the international community that rights issues they raised were being addressed. In fact a welcome to Ms. Pillay, visits to North and talks with all stakeholders within and outside the Government are being arranged or allowed with this in mind.
Formal official statement
Now, the thorny issue of Weliweriya and complaints by leaders of the Catholic and Muslim communities, issues which the Government never expected, are staring them in the face. While different views expressed by ministers, police, the military spokesperson, and an Army pamphlet distributed in Weliweriya explaining why it had to act, a formal official statement came last Thursday in Parliament. That was from Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, the leader of the House, in answer to issues raised by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He asked in a statement, “Why was the Army, rather than the Police, deployed to Weliweriya? An explanation must be made as to why, in the first place, the Police were not deployed to settle this clash. There are a number of methods to disperse a public demonstration or a protest. Deployment of Police riot control groups, water spraying or spraying of tear gas and firing with rubber bullets etc. can be used. Warnings should be issued in all three languages before shooting. But it appears that none of these methods was used…..”
Minister de Silva said that the stakeholders to the issue had a meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on August 1. They had returned thereafter. He said, “At that point a section of the crowd cheered and dispersed voluntarily while a group of unruly elements remained behind. Those who remained there initiated disturbances and blocked the Weliweriya road. They threw petrol bombs and threw (sic) stones and created a clash with the armed forces. It is reported that shots were fired at the armed forces too by the demonstrators. A full inquiry into this is now underway. The same group also destroyed public property and the Weliweriya Day fair (Pola) too was damaged.
“The armed forces had to intervene to bring this situation under control. The OIC (Weliweriya Police) and eight other members of the security forces were seriously injured in this attack. A three wheeler was also set on fire. The security forces had to act in self-defence. The government acted with great restraint in this connection and also acted in a flexible manner to meet the demands of these people. The Government rejects outright the accusation by the Leader of Opposition that the security forces had fired at those who had sought refuge in a church. It is very clear that the police had done its best from the beginning to the end of the agitation discharging their duties in a prudent manner……”
The first public protest
This week, Wickremesinghe met party seniors and those involved in the media campaign to determine what steps the party should take to protest over the Weliweriya incident and a number of other issues. It was decided that the first public protest be staged opposite the Fort Railway Station on Wednesday (August 14). Thereafter similar protests are to be held in provincial towns.
A shocker for the topmost politician
The Gampaha District where Weliweriya is located has the highest number of voters registered in Sri Lanka. In terms of the 2012 voters register, it has 1,567,685 voers. It is 44,004 more than the Colombo District which has 1,523,681 voters. A large concentration of Catholics is resident in villages surrounding the Weliweriya town area where St. Anthony’s Church is located.
The aftermath of the army shooting in Weliweriya and the mood in the different villages in that area are reflected in reports elsewhere in today’s Sunday Times. However, the political aspects arising from it have come as a shocker for the topmost politician in the Gampaha District, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. It is no secret that he is one of three who are known to be the engines on which the UPFA Government is run. The others are President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Around 3 p.m. on August 1, it was a journalist who was watching protestors gather at the Orutota junction who noticed the presence of army personnel. He rang Minister Rajapaksa and had asked why they had been deployed. Basil Rajapaksa had thought that police may have sought their help for crowd control. In fact, a senior Police officer had called him earlier that day and informed that the Inspector General of Police would not authorise the use of weapons to contain the protestors.
That refusal had something to do with the incident at the Katunayake Export Processing Zone in March 2011 where police opened fire. It killed a worker protesting against a pension scheme the Government wanted to introduce for the private sector. A source close to Minister Rajapaksa said at a conference at the Presidential Secretariat, where his office was then located, he had reprimanded then Police Chief, Mahinda Balasuriya. He had directed that in future, no weapons should be issued to the police without prior permission from Minister Rajapaksa if ever there were occasions when they had to deal with public protests in the Gampaha District. The present IGP N.K. Illangakoon was then Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) and had been aware of the request. In the light of this, no instructions had gone out from the Defence Ministry either. Who is the senior Police official who then sought the assistance of the army? Who in the higher command of the army ordered the deployment of troops? One high ranking source said the newly appointed Army Commander Daya Ratnayake was busy with the taking over ceremonies and became privy only after the incident had broken out. The army was in a moment of transition at the top. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa remained tight lipped when the question was posed by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. It came when the duo sat next to each other during a wedding at a Colombo hotel, the day after the incident. President Rajapaksa would only say that an Army Court of Inquiry was now probing the matter and whoever is found responsible would be dealt with according to the law.
In the absence of a State of Emergency, Police are empowered to seek army assistance when required. It is the detailed inquiry by the Colombo Crime Division (CCD) that will throw more light on these issues as well as a number of others. On Thursday, they told Gampaha’s Chief Magistrate Tikiri Jayatilleke who held the inquiry into the deaths that they had questioned and recorded statements from about hundred Army and Police officers. They also said that they had taken into possession 93 assault rifles used by army personnel on the day of the incident.
Distraught by the shooting incident is Minister Rajapaksa. He told the Sunday Times, “it is very unfortunate. We have been doing everything to address the issues raised by the citizens of the area. Politicians cannot close down a factory that soon. We have to follow a procedure. Otherwise, it can hamper foreign investment and raise other legal issues. This factory supplies surgical gloves to the United States market. We obtained the concurrence of the owners to shut it down for two weeks whilst we examine the complaints of contaminated water.” Rajapaksa is now directing a campaign to determine how waste in factories in the Gampaha District is being disposed of. This is whilst a contingent of Police STF commandos are placed at the factory for its protection.
He added: “Police filed action in courts under the Police Ordinance against the factory. The Magistrate asked the people affected to make a complaint. Four of them did so but withdrew later. People have also not made any written or verbal complaint to the Police. The matter was pending before courts. I had asked Deputy Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna to carry out an awareness programme in the area after complaints were received. We were in the process of resolving the issues. Alagiyawanna was meeting the residents to keep them informed. Sadly, the shooting incident took place.” As a long term solution of providing water to the villages, he said, supply lines were being extended from Kadawatha. “In addition, the supply line leading to Delgoda is also being re-routed. Furthermore, we will also include more areas when the Attanagalu Oya water supply scheme is completed,” he declared.
Social media reportage
The social media have given wide reportage to the Weliweriya incidents. Video clips showing graphic details of the army action have been posted on the YouTube. This prompted the New York based Human Rights Watch to say in a statement: “…. It is not clear why soldiers were deployed so soon without giving the police and local authorities a chance to handle what had been a peaceful protest. Video footage shows soldiers with military assault weapons approaching the protesters. The protesters begin running from the scene, some throwing sticks and other objects, before the soldiers appear to fire first in the air and then at the protesters.”
The HRW statement said, “The Sri Lankan government should stop issuing misleading information and promptly create an independent and transparent inquiry into the deaths of protesters…”
Of some importance in the social media is a reference to the Sri Lanka Government allocating US dollars 150 million to invest in a project to provide safe water to the people of Western Uganda. This report assumed greater credence after the Government Information Department in Colombo posted the same report on its official website news.lk
This is what the report said: “The government has allocated 150 million U.S. Dollars to invest in a project to provide safe water to the people of western Uganda.
“Uganda’s leading daily New Vision reported that VA Tech Wabag, the largest multinational company specializing in water treatment has, recently sent a three-man delegation from its Sri Lanka unit to explore Uganda’s potential in the water sector,
“Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during his visit to Sri Lanka last November impressed with Sri Lanka’s advanced state of water treatment and distribution requested assistance from technologically competent companies to provide similar sustainable solutions in Uganda.
“The Ugandan newspaper said that the team from the VA Tech Wabag had met President Museveni at the State House in Entebbe and expressed their eagerness to provide safe water to Ugandans. Consul General of Sri Lanka in Uganda, Kana V. Kananathan has also participated in the discussions. The newspaper also said that during his visit to Colombo President Museveni has assured the Sri Lankan government that Uganda needed investors with real money.
“President Museveni has also sought more Sri Lankan investment and expertise to set up more hydro power projects in addition to the three mini hydro power projects operated in his country by Sri Lankan investors.”
This apart, during his visit to Uganda in November last year, President Rajapaksa donated US$ 1.5 million to “upgrade the Masulita Institute and to establish “Sri Lanka-Uganda Friendship and Vocational and Technical Training Centre (SLUF-VTTC), which in turn would assist the human resource development in Uganda.”
Uganda introduces tough new laws
Most Sri Lankans who are aware their country is forging closer ties with Uganda will be dismayed to hear the news this week. President Museveni’s Government has introduced tough new laws in his country where three or more persons cannot gather in a public place to talk politics without the permission of the Inspector General of Police. Under the Regulation of Public Order Management Law Ugandan nationals will have to apply to the IGP in advance “to regulate the conduct of all public meetings and disperse meetings held without notifying the Police.” Other highlights of the new law where no one can discuss politics without the permission of the Police Chief are:
- The new law describes a public meeting as a “gathering, assembly, concourse, procession or demonstration of three or more persons in or on any public road as defined in the Traffic Road Safety Act or other public place or premises or partly open to the air;
- Any person who intends to hold a public meeting shall give notice in writing to the IGP for permission, at least seven days before the proposed date of such meeting.
- A person who defies this IGP requirement or fails to comply with the conditions commits an offence.
- The use of loud speaker, loud hailers, and public address apparatus without the IGP’s prior permission is banned.
Useful Ugandan relationship
One area where Sri Lanka finds its relationship with Uganda useful is the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Colombo in November. With a footprint in Kampala, the Government hopes to reach out to other African countries. President Museveni has already confirmed he would attend the event.
Media Matters outsourced
In Colombo, the Government has effected some major procedural changes for the CHOGM. When Sri Lanka hosted the conference of Non-Aligned Nations in 1976 or the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) summits in 1991, 1998 and 2008, it was the Government Information Department which was tasked with the responsibility of dealing with the media and publicity matters. This time, in a surprise move, it has been outsourced.
The Ministry of Mass Media advertised calling for proposals to “Design, Construct, Operate and Manage the Media Centre with fully equipped media facilities for print and electronic media for the Commonwealth Heads of the Government Meeting (CHOGM) – November 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka”. A cabinet appointed tender board has recommended and the award has gone to a private firm. A Colombo-based advertising agency has been given the responsibility of the overseas publicity campaign. The running of web portals has been outsourced to an IT company. The operation tasks of the media, including the arrangement of pool coverage has been given to a foreign company.
Waiting to pounce
At the conclusion of the CHOGM, Sri Lanka will become the chair-in-office of the world body for two years. That will probably give the UPFA Government some strong clout to say in the international arena that it leads a grouping of 53 nations. Yet, the storm clouds that are building over the Weliweriya incident and minority rights issues will increase the Government’s woes that much more. Western powers are waiting to pounce on any mishap in Sri Lanka. The question is whether it is worth allowing such a huge hostile buildup when they can be avoided if there was prompt and firm responses to key issues.
Like in the case of the stance at the UNHRC, or the more recent moves to change the 13th Amendment through an Urgent Bill, by the time there are second thoughts, the damage is already done. Either those who matter are unaware or are otherwise too busy. They may be happy there is a weaker opposition and fear no fallout. The result, however, is that the people’s opposition, and their wrath, is spilling out onto the streets. The change of mind over the UNHRC shows, there are other nations, rich and poor, which are watching. Therein lies the message.