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Do not utilize the army to maintain public order

| A Statement issued by the National Peace Council

( August 9, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The tragic incident at Weliveriya in the west of the country, where the army was deployed to bring a public protest to an end, has led to the deaths of three persons and serious injuries to many others. The protest, which was against the contamination of groundwater consumed by village communities in the area by a factory, spilled over onto the highway obstructing traffic. The National Peace Council deplores the government’s use of the army and shoot-to-kill methods to suppress a protest by the people in the exercise of their freedom of association.

In the past, prior the war, it was the general practice for the police to deal with public protests. Only the Government Agent of the district or the Superintendant of Police were authorized to issue an order to shoot and even in the case of such an order the requirement was to shoot below the knees. Before the order to shoot was issued it was a requirement that the Riot Act be read out loud. In this instance, however, the military operations seem to have been launched without explicit warning that firing with live bullets would take place. In addition, civilians fleeing violence who sought sanctuary in places of religious worship for their safety were also attacked. It is totally unacceptable for anyone carrying arms to enter the premises of any religion to attack unarmed civilians seeking protection. Even media personnel covering the incident were attacked and their equipment was damaged so that they would not be able to report.

The tragedy at Weliveriya serves as a wake- up call to the government to be resolute in de-militarising governance after the end of the war and revert to the pre-war practice. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the President after the war emphasized the distinction between police and the army. These are institutions that cannot, and should not, be mixed and used interchangeably except in the most exceptional of circumstances, such as the war that Sri Lanka has emerged from. In this context, we note that the LLRC recommended the removal of the police from the purview of the Ministry of Defence under which the army rightfully comes, and further recommended that the police (along with the public service) should be removed from the domain of partisan politics. In addition, the LLRC recommended the restoration of civil administration in the Northern and Eastern province and to reduce the role of the military in governance.

The Weliweriya incident is not the first serious post-war incident involving the military and the civilian population. There have been several similar incidents in different parts of the country in the intervening years. These include the recent breaking up of civilian protests against the take-over of lands in Veligamam North in the Jaffna peninsula, the shooting death of one person in the break up of demonstration by fishermen in Chilaw over a fuel price hike, another shooting death of a worker in a trade union protests in Katunayake, the killing of over 40 prisoners in the Welikada jail riots, clashes with university students in Jaffna on the commemoration of the war dead, and with civilians in Nedunkerny over the “Grease devils” assailants.

We call on the government to hold an independent inquiry into this incident, to hold those who gave orders to shoot live bullets responsible and accountable, to compensate adequately those who lost their loved ones or were injured, to implement the LLRC recommendations regarding the separation of police and military lines of command and to restrict the role of the military all over the country to be a last resort and only in cases where the police have failed to prevent extreme violence and disorder.

Governing Council : The National Peace Council is an independent and non partisan organization that works towards a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. It has a vision of a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka in which the freedom, human rights and democratic rights of all the communities are respected. The policy of the National Peace Council is determined by its Governing Council of 20 members who are drawn from diverse walks of life and belong to all the main ethnic and religious communities in the country.
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